This article is about Shakespeare's play. For other uses, see A Midsummer Night's Dream (disambiguation).
A Midsummer Night's Dream is a comedy written by William Shakespeare in 1595/96. It portrays the events surrounding the marriage of Theseus, the Duke of Athens, to Hippolyta, the former queen of the Amazons. These include the adventures of four young Athenian lovers and a group of six amateur actors (the mechanicals) who are controlled and manipulated by the fairies who inhabit the forest in which most of the play is set. The play is one of Shakespeare's most popular works for the stage and is widely performed across the world.
- Oberon—King of the Fairies
- Titania—Queen of the Fairies
- Robin Goodfellow—a puck
- Peasblossom, Cobweb, Moth, Mustardseed—fairy servants to Titania
- Indian changeling
The play consists of four interconnecting plots, connected by a celebration of the wedding of Duke Theseus of Athens and the Amazon queen, Hippolyta, which is set simultaneously in the woodland and in the realm of Fairyland, under the light of the moon.
The play opens with Hermia, who is in love with Lysander, resistant to her father Egeus' demand that she wed Demetrius, whom he has arranged for her to marry. Helena meanwhile pines unrequitedly for Demetrius. Enraged, Egeus invokes an ancient Athenian law before Duke Theseus, whereby a daughter needs to marry a suitor chosen by her father, or else face death. Theseus offers her another choice: lifelong chastity while worshipping the goddess Artemis as a nun.
Peter Quince and his fellow players Nick Bottom, Francis Flute, Robin Starveling, Tom Snout, and Snug plan to put on a play for the wedding of the Duke and the Queen, "the most lamentable comedy and most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisbe." Quince reads the names of characters and bestows them on the players. Nick Bottom, who is playing the main role of Pyramus, is over-enthusiastic and wants to dominate others by suggesting himself for the characters of Thisbe, the Lion, and Pyramus at the same time. He would also rather be a tyrant and recites some lines of Ercles. Bottom is told by Quince that he would do the Lion so terribly as to frighten the duchess and ladies enough for the Duke and Lords to have the players hanged. Quince ends the meeting with "at the Duke's oak we meet."
In a parallel plot line, Oberon, king of the fairies, and Titania, his queen, have come to the forest outside Athens. Titania tells Oberon that she plans to stay there until she has attended Theseus and Hippolyta's wedding. Oberon and Titania are estranged because Titania refuses to give her Indian changeling to Oberon for use as his "knight" or "henchman," since the child's mother was one of Titania's worshippers. Oberon seeks to punish Titania's disobedience. He calls upon Robin "Puck" Goodfellow, his "shrewd and knavish sprite," to help him concoct a magical juice derived from a flower called "love-in-idleness," which turns from white to purple when struck by Cupid's arrow. When the concoction is applied to the eyelids of a sleeping person, that person, upon waking, falls in love with the first living thing he perceives. He instructs Puck to retrieve the flower with the hope that he might make Titania fall in love with an animal of the forest and thereby shame her into giving up the little Indian boy. He says, "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."
Hermia and Lysander have escaped to the same forest in hopes of eloping. Helena, desperate to reclaim Demetrius's love, tells Demetrius about the plan and he follows them in hopes of killing Lysander. Helena continually makes advances towards Demetrius, promising to love him more than Hermia. However, he rebuffs her with cruel insults against her. Observing this, Oberon orders Puck to spread some of the magical juice from the flower on the eyelids of the young Athenian man. Instead, Puck mistakes Lysander for Demetrius, not having actually seen either before, and administers the juice to the sleeping Lysander. Helena, coming across him, wakes him while attempting to determine whether he is dead or asleep. Upon this happening, Lysander immediately falls in love with Helena. Oberon sees Demetrius still following Hermia and is enraged. When Demetrius goes to sleep, Oberon sends Puck to get Helena while he charms Demetrius' eyes. Upon waking up, he sees Helena. Now, both men are in pursuit of Helena. However, she is convinced that her two suitors are mocking her, as neither loved her originally. Hermia is at a loss to see why her lover has abandoned her, and accuses Helena of stealing Lysander away from her. The four quarrel with each other until Lysander and Demetrius become so enraged that they seek a place to duel to prove whose love for Helena is the greater. Oberon orders Puck to keep Lysander and Demetrius from catching up with one another and to remove the charm from Lysander so Lysander can return to love Hermia, while Demetrius continues to love Helena.
Meanwhile, Quince and his band of six labourers ("rude mechanicals," as they are described by Puck) have arranged to perform their play about Pyramus and Thisbe for Theseus' wedding and venture into the forest, near Titania's bower, for their rehearsal. Bottom is spotted by Puck, who (taking his name to be another word for a jackass) transforms his head into that of a donkey. When Bottom returns for his next lines, the other workmen run screaming in terror: They claim that they are haunted, much to Bottom's confusion. Determined to await his friends, he begins to sing to himself. Titania, having received the love-potion, is awakened by Bottom's singing and immediately falls in love with him. She lavishes him with the attention of her and her fairies, and while she is in this state of devotion, Oberon takes the changeling. Having achieved his goals, Oberon releases Titania, orders Puck to remove the donkey's head from Bottom, and arranges everything so Helena, Hermia, Demetrius and Lysander will all believe they have been dreaming when they awaken. Puck distracts Lysander and Demetrius from fighting over Helena's love by mimicking their voices and leading them apart. Eventually, all four find themselves separately falling asleep in the glade. Once they fall asleep, Puck administers the love potion to Lysander again, claiming all will be well in the morning.
The fairies then disappear, and Theseus and Hippolyta arrive on the scene, during an early morning hunt. They wake the lovers and, since Demetrius no longer loves Hermia, Theseus over-rules Egeus's demands and arranges a group wedding. The lovers decide that the night's events must have been a dream. After they exit, Bottom awakes, and he too decides that he must have experienced a dream "past the wit of man."
In Athens, Theseus, Hippolyta and the lovers watch the six workmen perform Pyramus and Thisbe. The performers are so terrible playing their roles that the guests laugh as if it were meant to be a comedy, and everyone retires to bed. Afterwards, Oberon, Titania, Puck, and other fairies enter, and bless the house and its occupants with good fortune. After all the other characters leave, Puck "restores amends" and suggests that what the audience experienced might just be a dream.
It is unknown exactly when A Midsummer Night's Dream was written or first performed, but on the basis of topical references and an allusion to Edmund Spenser's Epithalamion, it is usually dated 1595 or early 1596. Some have theorised that the play might have been written for an aristocratic wedding (for example that of Elizabeth Carey, Lady Berkeley), while others suggest that it was written for the Queen to celebrate the feast day of St. John, but no evidence exists to support this theory. In any case, it would have been performed at The Theatre and, later, The Globe. Though it is not a translation or adaptation of an earlier work, various sources such as Ovid's Metamorphoses and Chaucer's "The Knight's Tale" served as inspiration. According to John Twyning, the play's plot of four lovers undergoing a trial in the woods was intended as a "riff" on Der Busant, a Middle High German poem.
According to Dorothea Kehler, the writing period can be placed between 1594 and 1596, which means that Shakespeare had probably already completed Romeo and Juliet and had yet to start working on The Merchant of Venice. The play belongs to the early-middle period of the author, when Shakespeare devoted his attention to the lyricism of his works.
According to De Vere family lore (which may or may not actually be true), Shakespeare's first performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream occurred at the wedding of Elizabeth De Vere to William Stanley, Sixth Earl of Derby, on June 26, 1594, at the Court of Greenwich, in the presence of Queen Elizabeth.
Date and text
The play was entered into the Register of the Stationers' Company on 8 October 1600 by the bookseller Thomas Fisher, who published the first quarto edition later that year. A second quarto was printed in 1619 by William Jaggard, as part of his so-called False Folio. The play next appeared in print in the First Folio of 1623. The title page of Q1 states that the play was "sundry times publickely acted" prior to 1600. The first performance known with certainty occurred at Court on 1 January 1605.
Themes and motifs
Prior to the Christian St. John's Day, in Ancient Greece, marking Midsummer was an event called Adonia. It was the first festive day (and night) when Adonis was allowed to depart the underworld to spend six months with his paramour, Aphrodite. It was considered a time to celebrate the first bliss of new and reunited lovers. The wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta and the mistaken and waylaid lovers, Titania and Bottom, even the erstwhile acting troupe, model various aspects (and forms) of love.
Both David Wiles of the University of London and Harold Bloom of Yale University have strongly endorsed the reading of this play under the themes of Carnivalesque, Bacchanalia, and Saturnalia. Writing in 1998, David Wiles stated that: "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."
David Bevington argues that the play represents the dark side of love. He writes that the fairies make light of love by mistaking the lovers and by applying a love potion to Titania's eyes, forcing her to fall in love with an ass. In the forest, both couples are beset by problems. Hermia and Lysander are both met by Puck, who provides some comic relief in the play by confounding the four lovers in the forest. However, the play also alludes to serious themes. At the end of the play, Hippolyta and Theseus, happily married, watch the play about the unfortunate lovers, Pyramus and Thisbe, and are able to enjoy and laugh at it. Helena and Demetrius are both oblivious to the dark side of their love, totally unaware of what may have come of the events in the forest.
Problem with time
There is a dispute over the scenario of the play as it is cited at first by Theseus that "four happy days bring in another moon." The wood episode then takes place at a night of no moon, but Lysander asserts that there will be so much light in the very night they will escape that dew on the grass will be shining like liquid pearls. Also, in the next scene, Quince states that they will rehearse in moonlight, which creates a real confusion. It is possible that the Moon set during the night allowing Lysander to escape in the moonlight and for the actors to rehearse, then for the wood episode to occur without moonlight. Theseus's statement can also be interpreted to mean "four days until the next month." Another possibility is that, since each month there are roughly four consecutive nights that the moon is not seen due to its closeness to the sun in the sky (the two nights before the moment of new moon, followed by the two following it), it may in this fashion indicate a liminal "dark of the moon" period full of magical possibilities. This is further supported by Hippolyta's opening lines exclaiming "And then the moon, like to a silver bow New-bent in heaven, shall behold the night of our solemnities."; the thin crescent-shaped moon being the hallmark of the new moon's return to the skies each month. The play also intertwines the Midsummer Eve of the title with May Day, furthering the idea of a confusion of time and the seasons. This is evidenced by Theseus commenting on some slumbering youths, that they "observe The rite of May."
Loss of individual identity
Maurice Hunt, Chair of the English Department at Baylor University, writes of the blurring of the identities of fantasy and reality in the play that make possible "that pleasing, narcotic dreaminess associated with the fairies of the play." By emphasising this theme, even in the setting of the play, Shakespeare prepares the reader's mind to accept the fantastic reality of the fairy world and its happenings. This also seems to be the axis around which the plot conflicts in the play occur. Hunt suggests that it is the breaking down of individual identities that leads to the central conflict in the story. It is the brawl between Oberon and Titania, based on a lack of recognition for the other in the relationship, that drives the rest of the drama in the story and makes it dangerous for any of the other lovers to come together due to the disturbance of Nature caused by a fairy dispute. Similarly, this failure to identify and to distinguish is what leads Puck to mistake one set of lovers for another in the forest, placing the flower's juice on Lysander's eyes instead of Demetrius'.
Victor Kiernan, a Marxist scholar and historian, writes that it is for the greater sake of love that this loss of identity takes place and that individual characters are made to suffer accordingly: "It was the more extravagant cult of love that struck sensible people as irrational, and likely to have dubious effects on its acolytes." He believes that identities in the play are not so much lost as they are blended together to create a type of haze through which distinction becomes nearly impossible. It is driven by a desire for new and more practical ties between characters as a means of coping with the strange world within the forest, even in relationships as diverse and seemingly unrealistic as the brief love between Titania and Bottom: "It was the tidal force of this social need that lent energy to relationships."
The aesthetics scholar David Marshall draws out this theme even further by noting that the loss of identity reaches its fullness in the description of the mechanicals and their assumption of other identities. In describing the occupations of the acting troupe, he writes "Two construct or put together, two mend and repair, one weaves and one sews. All join together what is apart or mend what has been rent, broken, or sundered." In Marshall's opinion, this loss of individual identity not only blurs specificities, it creates new identities found in community, which Marshall points out may lead to some understanding of Shakespeare's opinions on love and marriage. Further, the mechanicals understand this theme as they take on their individual parts for a corporate performance of Pyramus and Thisbe. Marshall remarks that "To be an actor is to double and divide oneself, to discover oneself in two parts: both oneself and not oneself, both the part and not the part." He claims that the mechanicals understand this and that each character, particularly among the lovers, has a sense of laying down individual identity for the greater benefit of the group or pairing. It seems that a desire to lose one's individuality and find identity in the love of another is what quietly moves the events of A Midsummer Night's Dream. As the primary sense of motivation, this desire is reflected even in the scenery depictions and the story's overall mood.
In his essay "Preposterous Pleasures: Queer Theories and A Midsummer Night's Dream," Douglas E. Green explores possible interpretations of alternative sexuality that he finds within the text of the play, in juxtaposition to the proscribed social mores of the culture at the time the play was written. He writes that his essay "does not (seek to) rewrite A Midsummer Night's Dream as a gay play but rather explores some of its 'homoerotic significations' ... moments of 'queer' disruption and eruption in this Shakespearean comedy." Green states that he does not consider Shakespeare to have been a "sexual radical," but that the play represented a "topsy-turvy world" or "temporary holiday" that mediates or negotiates the "discontents of civilisation," which while resolved neatly in the story's conclusion, do not resolve so neatly in real life. Green writes that the "sodomitical elements," "homoeroticism," "lesbianism," and even "compulsory heterosexuality" in the story must be considered in the context of the "culture of early modern England" as a commentary on the "aesthetic rigidities of comic form and political ideologies of the prevailing order." Aspects of ambiguous sexuality and gender conflict in the story are also addressed in essays by Shirley Garner and William W.E. Slights albeit all the characters are played by males.
Male dominance is one thematic element found in A Midsummer Night's Dream. In A Midsummer Night's Dream, Lysander and Hermia escape into the woods for a night where they do not fall under the laws of Theseus or Egeus. Upon their arrival in Athens, the couples are married. Marriage is seen as the ultimate social achievement for women while men can go on to do many other great things and gain social recognition. In The Imperial Votaress, Louis Montrose draws attention to male and female gender roles and norms present in the comedy in connection with Elizabethan culture. In reference to the triple wedding, he says, "The festive conclusion in A Midsummer Night's Dream depends upon the success of a process by which the feminine pride and power manifested in Amazon warriors, possessive mothers, unruly wives, and wilful daughters are brought under the control of lords and husbands." He says that the consummation of marriage is how power over a woman changes hands from father to husband. A connection between flowers and sexuality is drawn. The juice employed by Oberon can be seen as symbolising menstrual blood as well as the sexual blood shed by virgins. While blood as a result of menstruation is representative of a woman's power, blood as a result of a first sexual encounter represents man's power over women.
There are points in the play, however, when there is an absence of patriarchal control. In his book Power on Display, Leonard Tennenhouse says the problem in A Midsummer Night's Dream is the problem of "authority gone archaic". The Athenian law requiring a daughter to die if she does not do her father's will is outdated. Tennenhouse contrasts the patriarchal rule of Theseus in Athens with that of Oberon in the carnivalistic Faerie world. The disorder in the land of the fairies completely opposes the world of Athens. He states that during times of carnival and festival, male power is broken down. For example, what happens to the four lovers in the woods as well as Bottom's dream represents chaos that contrasts with Theseus' political order. However, Theseus does not punish the lovers for their disobedience. According to Tennenhouse, by forgiving the lovers, he has made a distinction between the law of the patriarch (Egeus) and that of the monarch (Theseus), creating two different voices of authority. This distinction can be compared to the time of Elizabeth I, in which monarchs were seen as having two bodies: the body natural and the body politic. Elizabeth's succession itself represented both the voice of a patriarch as well as the voice of a monarch: (1) her father's will which stated that the crown should pass to her and (2) the fact that she was the daughter of a king.
Criticism and interpretation
Dorothea Kehler has attempted to trace the criticism of the work through the centuries. The earliest such piece of criticism was a 1662 entry in the diary of Samuel Pepys. He found the play to be "the most insipid ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life." He did, however, admit that it had "some good dancing and some handsome women, which was all my pleasure." The next critic to write on the play was John Dryden, writing in 1677. He was preoccupied with the question of whether fairies should be depicted in theatrical plays, since they did not exist. He concluded that poets should be allowed to depict things which do not exist but derive from popular belief. And fairies are of this sort, as are pigmies and the extraordinary effects of magick. Based on this reasoning, Dryden defended the merits of three fantasy plays: A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Tempest, and Ben Jonson'sMasque of Witches.
Charles Gildon in the early 18th century recommended this play for its beautiful reflections, descriptions, similes, and topics. Gildon thought that Shakespeare drew inspiration from the works of Ovid and Virgil, and that he could read them in the original Latin and not in later translations.James Halliwell-Phillipps, writing in the 1840s, found that there were many inconsistencies in the play, but considered it the most beautiful poetical drama ever written. Henry Austin Clapp, writing in 1885, commented on the inconsistency of the time depicted in the play, as it should take place in four days and nights and seems to last less than two, and felt that this added to the unrealistic quality of the play.
Horace Howard Furness, defending the play in 1895, felt that the apparent inconsistency did not detract from the play's quality. In 1971, Neil Taylor argued that there was a double time-scheme in the play, making it seem to last a minimum of four nights but to also be timeless. In 1977, Anne Paolucci argued that the play lasts five days.
William Duff, writing in the 1770s, also recommended this play. He felt the depiction of the supernatural was among Shakespeare's strengths, not weaknesses. He especially praised the poetry and wit of the fairies, and the quality of the verse involved. His contemporary Francis Gentleman, an admirer of Shakespeare, was much less appreciative of this play. He felt that the poetry, the characterisation, and the originality of the play were its strengths, but that its major weaknesses were a "puerile" plot and that it consists of an odd mixture of incidents. The connection of the incidents to each other seemed rather forced to Gentleman.
Edmond Malone, a Shakespearean scholar and critic of the late 18th century, found another supposed flaw in this particular play, its lack of a proper decorum. He found that the "more exalted characters" (the aristocrats of Athens) are subservient to the interests of those beneath them. In other words, the lower-class characters play larger roles than their betters and overshadow them. He found this to be a grave error of the writer. Malone thought that this play had to be an early and immature work of Shakespeare and, by implication, that an older writer would know better. Malone's main argument seems to derive from the classism of his era. He assumes that the aristocrats had to receive more attention in the narrative and to be more important, more distinguished, and better than the lower class.
According to Kehler, significant 19th-century criticism began in 1808 with August Wilhelm Schlegel. Schlegel perceived unity in the multiple plot lines. He noted that the donkey's head is not a random transformation, but reflects Bottom's true nature. He identified the tale of Pyramus and Thisbe as a burlesque of the Athenian lovers. In 1817, William Hazlitt found the play to be better as a written work than a staged production. He found the work to be "a delightful fiction" but when staged, it is reduced to a dull pantomime. He concluded that poetry and the stage do not fit together. Kehler finds the comment to be more of an indication of the quality of the theatrical productions available to Hazlitt, rather than a true indication of the play's supposed unsuitability to the stage. She notes that prior to the 1840s, all stage productions of this play were adaptations unfaithful to the original text.
In 1811–1812, Samuel Taylor Coleridge made two points of criticism about this play. The first was that the entire play should be seen as a dream. Second, that Helena is guilty of "ungrateful treachery" to Hermia. He thought that this was a reflection of the lack of principles in women, who are more likely to follow their own passions and inclinations than men. Women, in his view, feel less abhorrence for moral evil, though they are concerned with its outward consequences. Coleridge was probably the earliest critic to introduce gender issues to the analysis of this play. Kehler dismisses his views on Helena as indications of Coleridge's own misogyny, rather than genuine reflections of Helena's morality.
In 1837, William Maginn produced essays on the play. He turned his attention to Theseus' speech about "the lunatic, the lover, and the poet"[a] and to Hippolyta's response to it. He regarded Theseus as the voice of Shakespeare himself and the speech as a call for imaginative audiences. He also viewed Bottom as a lucky man on whom Fortune showered favours beyond measure. He was particularly amused by the way Bottom reacts to the love of the fairy queen: completely unfazed. Maginn argued that "Theseus would have bent in reverent awe before Titania. Bottom treats her as carelessly as if she were the wench of the next-door tapster." Finally, Maginn thought that Oberon should not be blamed for Titania's humiliation, which is the result of an accident. He viewed Oberon as angry with the "caprices" of his queen, but unable to anticipate that her charmed affections would be reserved for a weaver with a donkey's head.
In 1839, the philosopher Hermann Ulrici wrote that the play and its depiction of human life reflected the views of Platonism. In his view, Shakespeare implied that human life is nothing but a dream, suggesting influence from Plato and his followers who thought human reality is deprived of all genuine existence. Ulrici noted the way Theseus and Hippolyta behave here, like ordinary people. He agreed with Malone that this did not fit their stations in life, but viewed this behaviour as an indication of parody about class differences.
In 1849, Charles Knight also wrote about the play and its apparent lack of proper social stratification. He thought that this play indicated Shakespeare's maturity as a playwright, and that its "Thesean harmony" reflects proper decorum of character. He also viewed Bottom as the best-drawn character, with his self-confidence, authority, and self-love. He argued that Bottom stands as a representative of the whole human race. Like Hazlitt he felt that the work is best appreciated when read as a text, rather than acted on stage. He found the writing to be "subtle and ethereal", and standing above literary criticism and its reductive reasoning.
Also in 1849, Georg Gottfried Gervinus wrote extensively about the play. He denied the theory that this play should be seen as a dream. He argued that it should be seen as an ethical construct and an allegory. He thought that it was an allegorical depiction of the errors of sensual love, which is likened to a dream. In his view, Hermia lacks in filial obedience and acts as if devoid of conscience when she runs away with Lysander. Lysander is also guilty for disobeying and mocking his prospective father-in-law. Pyramus and Thisbe also lack in filial obedience, since they "woo by moonlight" behind their parents' backs. The fairies, in his view, should be seen as "personified dream gods". They represent the caprices of superficial love, and they lack in intellect, feeling, and ethics.
Gervinus also wrote on where the fairyland of the play is located. Not in Attica, but in the Indies. His views on the Indies seem to Kehler to be influenced by Orientalism. He speaks of the Indies as scented with the aroma of flowers and as the place where mortals live in the state of a half-dream. Gervinus denies and devalues the loyalty of Titania to her friend. He views this supposed friendship as not grounded in spiritual association. Titania merely "delight in her beauty, her 'swimming gait,' and her powers of imitation". Gervinus further views Titania as an immoral character for not trying to reconcile with her husband. In her resentment, Titania seeks separation from him, which Gervinus blames her for.
Gervinus wrote with elitist disdain about the mechanicals of the play and their acting aspirations. He described them as homely creatures with "hard hands and thick heads". They are, in his view, ignorant men who compose and act in plays merely for financial reward. They are not real artists. Gervinus reserves his praise and respect only for Theseus, who he thinks represents the intellectual man. Like several of his predecessors, Gervinus thought that this work should be read as a text and not acted on stage.
In 1863, Charles Cowden Clarke also wrote on this play. Kehler notes he was the husband of famous Shakespearean scholar Mary Cowden Clarke. Charles was more appreciative of the lower-class mechanicals of the play. He commented favourably on their individualisation and their collective richness of character. He thought that Bottom was conceited but good natured, and shows a considerable store of imagination in his interaction with the representatives of the fairy world. He also argued that Bottom's conceit was a quality inseparable from his secondary profession, that of an actor.
In 1872, Henry N. Hudson, an American clergyman and editor of Shakespeare, also wrote comments on this play. Kehler pays little attention to his writings, as they were largely derivative of previous works. She notes, however, that Hudson too believed that the play should be viewed as a dream. He cited the lightness of the characterisation as supporting of his view. In 1881, Edward Dowden argued that Theseus and his reflections on art are central to the play. He also argued that Theseus was one of the "heroic men of action" so central to Shakespeare's theatrical works.
Henry A. Clapp (1885) and Horace Howard Furness (1895) were both more concerned with the problem of the play's duration, though they held opposing views. In 1887, Denton Jacques Snider argued that the play should be read as a dialectic, either between understanding and imagination or between prose and poetry. He also viewed the play as representing three phases or movements. The first is the Real World of the play, which represents reason. The second is the Fairy World, an ideal world which represents imagination and the supernatural. The third is their representation in art, where the action is self-reflective. Snider viewed Titania and her caprice as solely to blame for her marital strife with Oberon. She therefore deserves punishment, and Oberon is a dutiful husband who provides her with one. For failing to live in peace with Oberon and her kind, Titania is sentenced to fall in love with a human. And this human, unlike Oberon is a "horrid brute".
Towards the end of the 19th century, Georg Brandes (1895–6) and Frederick S. Boas (1896) were the last major additions to A Midsummer Night's Dream criticism. Brandes' approach to anticipates later psychological readings, seeing Oberon's magic as symbolic and "typifying the sorcery of the erotic imagination". Brandes felt that in the play, Shakespeare looks inward at the "domain of the unconscious". Boas eschews the play as ethical treatise or psychological study and instead takes a more historicist and literal approach. To Boas the play is, despite its fantastical and exotic trappings, "essentially English and Elizabethan." He sees Theseus as a Tudor noble; Helena a mere plot device to "concentrate the four lovers on a single spot"; and the Pyramus and Thisbe play-within-the-play a parody of a prominent topos of contemporary plays. Summing up their contributions, Kehler writes: "This is recognizably modern criticism."
The 20th century brought new insights into the play. In 1961, Elizabeth Sewell argued that Shakespeare aligns himself not with the aristocrats of the play, but with Bottom and the artisans. It is their task to produce a wedding entertainment, precisely the purpose of the writer on working in this play. Also in 1961, Frank Kermode wrote on the themes of the play and their literary sources. He counted among them fantasy, blind love, and divine love. He traced these themes to the works of Macrobius, Apuleius, and Giordano Bruno. Bottom also briefly alludes to a passage from the First Epistle to the Corinthians by Paul the Apostle, dealing with divine love.[b]
In 1964, R.W. Dent argued against theories that the exemplary model of love in the play is the rational love of Theseus and Hippolyta. He argued that in this work, love is inexplicable. It is the offspring of imagination, not reason. However the exemplary love of the play is one of an imagination controlled and restrained, and avoids the excesses of "dotage". Genuine love is contrasted with the unrequited love (and dotage) of Demetrius for Hermia, and with the supposed love (and dotage) of Titania for an unworthy object.
Dent also denied the rationality and wisdom typically attributed to Theseus. He reminded his readers that this is the character of Theseus from Greek mythology, a creation himself of "antique fable". Theseus' views on art are far from rational or wise. He can't tell the difference between an actual play and its interlude. The interlude of the play's acting troop is less about the art and more of an expression of the mechanicals' distrust of their own audience. They fear the audience reactions will be either excessive or inadequate, and say so on stage. Theseus fails to get the message.
Also in 1964, Jan Kott offered his own views on the play. He viewed as main themes of the play violence and "unrepressed animalistic sexuality". Both Lysander and Demetrius are, in his view, verbally brutal lovers, their love interests are exchangeable and objectified. The changeling that Oberon desires is his new "sexual toy". The aristocrats of the play, both mortal and immortal, are promiscuous. As for the Athenian lovers following their night in the forest, they are ashamed to talk about it because that night liberated them from themselves and social norms, and allowed them to reveal their real selves. Kott's views were controversial and contemporary critics wrote, either in favour of or against Kott's views, but few ignored them.
In 1967, John A. Allen theorised that Bottom is a symbol of the animalistic aspect of humanity. He also thought Bottom was redeemed through the maternal tenderness of Titania, which allowed him to understand the love and self-sacrifice of Pyramus and Thisbe. In 1968, Stephen Fender offered his own views on the play. He emphasised the "terrifying power" of the fairies and argued that they control the play's events. They are the most powerful figures featured, not Theseus as often thought. He also emphasised the ethically ambivalent characters of the play. Finally, Fender noted a layer of complexity in the play. Theseus, Hippolyta, and Bottom have contradictory reactions to the events of the night, and each has partly valid reasons for their reactions, implying that the puzzles offered to the play's audience can have no singular answer or meaning.
In 1969, Michael Taylor argued that previous critics offered a too cheerful view of what the play depicts. He emphasised the less pleasant aspects of the otherwise appealing fairies and the nastiness of the mortal Demetrius prior to his enchantment. He argued that the overall themes are the often painful aspects of love and the pettiness of people, which here include the fairies.
In 1970, R.A. Zimbardo viewed the play as full of symbols. The Moon and its phases alluded to in the play, in his view, stand for permanence in mutability. The play uses the principle of discordia concors in several of its key scenes. Theseus and Hippolyta represent marriage and, symbolically, the reconciliation of the natural seasons or the phases of time. Hippolyta's story arc is that she must submit to Theseus and become a matron. Titania has to give up her motherly obsession with the changeling boy and passes through a symbolic death, and Oberon has to once again woo and win his wife. Kehler notes that Zimbardo took for granted the female subordination within the obligatory marriage, social views that were already challenged in the 1960s.
In 1971, James L. Calderwood offered a new view on the role of Oberon. He viewed the king as specialising in the arts of illusion. Oberon, in his view, is the interior dramatist of the play, orchestrating events. He is responsible for the play's happy ending, when he influences Theseus to overrule Egeus and allow the lovers to marry. Oberon and Theseus bring harmony out of discord. He also suggested that the lovers' identities, which are blurred and lost in the forest, recall the unstable identities of the actors who constantly change roles. In fact the failure of the artisans' play is based on their chief flaw as actors: they can not lose their own identities to even temporarily replace them with those of their fictional roles.
Also in 1971, Andrew D. Weiner argued that the play's actual theme is unity. The poet's imagination creates unity by giving form to diverse elements, and the writer is addressing the spectator's own imagination which also creates and perceives unity. Weiner connected this unity to the concept of uniformity, and in turn viewed this as Shakespeare's allusion to the "eternal truths" of Platonism and Christianity.
Also writing in 1971, Hugh M. Richmond offered an entirely new view of the play's love story lines. He argued that what passes for love in this play is actually a self-destructive expression of passion. He argued that the play's significant characters are all affected by passion and by a sadomasochistic type of sexuality. This passion prevents the lovers from genuinely communicating with each other. At the same time it protects them from the disenchantment with the love interest that communication inevitably brings. The exception to the rule is Bottom, who is chiefly devoted to himself. His own egotism protects him from feeling passion for anyone else. Richmond also noted that there are parallels between the tale of Pyramus and Thisbe, featured in this play, and that of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.
In 1972, Ralph Berry argued that Shakespeare was chiefly concerned with epistemology in this play. The lovers declare illusion to be reality, the actors declare reality to be illusion. The play ultimately reconciles the seemingly opposing views and vindicates imagination. Also in 1972, Thomas McFarland argued that the play is dominated by a mood of happiness and that it is one of the happiest literary creations ever produced. The mood is so lovely that the audience never feels fear or worry about the fate of the characters.
In 1974, Marjorie Garber argued that metamorphosis is both the major subject of the play and the model of its structure. She noted that in this play, the entry in the woods is a dream-like change in perception, a change which affects both the characters and the audience. Dreams here take priority over reason, and are truer than the reality they seek to interpret and transform. Also in 1974, Alexander Leggatt offered his own reading of the play. He was certain that there are grimmer elements in the play, but they are overlooked because the audience focuses on the story of the sympathetic young lovers. He viewed the characters as separated into four groups which interact in various ways. Among the four, the fairies stand as the most sophisticated and unconstrained. The contrasts between the interacting groups produce the play's comic perspective.
In 1975, Ronald F. Miller expresses his view that the play is a study in the epistemology of imagination. He focused on the role of the fairies, who have a mysterious aura of evanescence and ambiguity. Also in 1975, David Bevington offered his own reading of the play. He in part refuted the ideas of Jan Kott concerning the sexuality of Oberon and the fairies. He pointed that Oberon may be bisexual and his desire for the changeling boy may be sexual in nature, as Kott suggested. But there is little textual evidence to support this, as the writer left ambiguous clues concerning the idea of love among the fairies. He concluded that therefore their love life is "unknowable and incomprehensible". According to Bevington, the main theme of the play is the conflict between sexual desire and rational restraint, an essential tension reflected throughout the play. It is the tension between the dark and benevolent sides of love, which are reconciled in the end.
In 1979, M. E. Lamb suggested that the play may have borrowed an aspect of the ancient myth of Theseus: the Athenian's entry into the Labyrinth of the Minotaur. The woods of the play serve as a metaphorical labyrinth, and for Elizabethans the woods were often an allegory of sexual sin. The lovers in the woods conquer irrational passion and find their way back. Bottom with his animal head becomes a comical version of the Minotaur. Bottom also becomes Ariadne's thread which guides the lovers. In having the new Minotaur rescue rather than threaten the lovers, the classical myth is comically inverted. Theseus himself is the bridegroom of the play who has left the labyrinth and promiscuity behind, having conquered his passion. The artisans may stand in for the master craftsman of the myth, and builder of the Labyrinth, Daedalus. Even Theseus' best known speech in the play, which connects the poet with the lunatic and the lover may be another metaphor of the lover. It is a challenge for the poet to confront the irrationality he shares with lovers and lunatics, accepting the risks of entering the labyrinth.
Also in 1979, Harold F. Brooks agreed that the main theme of the play, its very heart, is desire and its culmination in marriage. All other subjects are of lesser importance, including that of imagination and that of appearance and reality. In 1980, Florence Falk offered a view of the play based on theories of cultural anthropology. She argued that the play is about traditional rites of passage, which trigger development within the individual and society. Theseus has detached himself from imagination and rules Athens harshly. The lovers flee from the structure of his society to the communitas of the woods. The woods serve here as the communitas, a temporary aggregate for persons whose asocial desires require accommodation to preserve the health of society. This is the rite of passage where the asocial can be contained. Falk identified this communitas with the woods, with the unconscious, with the dream space. She argued that the lovers experience release into self-knowledge and then return to the renewed Athens. This is "societas", the resolution of the dialectic between the dualism of communitas and structure.
1. Though Bottom often steals the show in performance, Puck is usually considered the most important character in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Comparing Puck to Bottom, why might Puck be considered the protagonist? In what way does Puck’s spirit dominate the mood of the play? In what ways does the comedy surrounding Puck differ from that surrounding Bottom?
2. Compare and contrast the Athenian lovers with the craftsmen. In what ways are the dispositions of the two groups different from each other? Are they the same in any way?
3. What role do Theseus and Hippolyta play in A Midsummer Night’s Dream? What is the significance of the fact that they are absent from the play’s main action?
4. It has been argued that the characters of the Athenian lovers are not particularly differentiated from one another—that Hermia is quite like Helena (even down to her name) and that Demetrius resembles Lysander. Do you think that this is the case, or do you think that the lovers emerge as individuals? If you believe that these characters are quite similar to one another, what do you think Shakespeare’s intent was in making them so?