Literary Criticism on A Midsummer Night's Dream

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      Elizabeth Latimer: No play was ever named more appropriately than this; it is a "Dream," - a dream composed of elves, mistakes, wild fantasies, and the grotesque. Its time is night. When the day dawns, the shadows flee away; the dramatis personae awake, and all becomes right again. Shakespeare may have dreamed it, lying on some cowslip bank. And, what is most remarkable in this play, written by a master of character, there are almost no human characters in it that we can take an interest in. We care little for Helena, or Hermia; Lysander, or Demetrius; Theseus, or Hippolyta: our interest is in the loveliness, and gracefulness, and grotesqueness of the dream. Shakespeare could not create human beings without ending them with life. We have the good-natured, appreciative Theseus, who makes the best of everything; the proud, fastidious Hippolyta; the tall, fair, spiteful, cowardly; exasperated Helena; the petite, sprightly; dark, confiding, outraged Hermia, - brave, but with a will and temper of her own; Lysander, the true gentleman and lover; Demetrius, who was no gentleman, but at once hot-tempered and a sneak.

      Just as in newspaper illustrations, a French artist, with half a dozen random scratches of the pen, makes his sketch instinct with life and meaning, so Shakespeare, in his merest sketches, gives the spirit of a finished and elaborated portrait; and nowhere do we see this more plainly than in "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Observe, in contrast, that the fairies, and the clown-fairy, Puck, have no characters at all. Oberon is possessed by the spirit of jealousy; Titania, by a spirit of tormenting; Puck delights in putting his finger into every pie, for frolic's sake, be it to mar or mend; but we do not feel in the least that Oberon is of a jealous disposition, or that Titania is a fairy Cressida, or that Puck is steeped in malignity. Their jealousy, their caprices, or their mischief, are mere surface qualities.

      John Arthos: The play ends with Puck sweeping the stage. The fanciful and elaborate goings-on are over with, dancing and music have wound up the festivities, the wedding parties are off to bed and the audience too is being sent home. We are being given once more that conventional and charming send-off where the person in the play, the actors and all the others in the theatre are being addressed at the same time. But just before the last words -

Good-Night Unto You All:

      There is a reminder of what is immediately ahead for everyone, now that it is all over, the palace dark, the theatre dark, the players departed. The empty world is being left to the powers to mischief, and out of the darkness, out of the graves and tombs, evil spirits will be rising, they will be taking over, and this is why Oberon and Titania, and Puck sweeping out every corner, am to keep mischief away from the lovers who have just found their happy conclusions. Charms are uttered to protect those who are asleep, and even those who are being conceived are to be protected from the curses of moles and harelips Where it not for these good spirits-Puck is saying—

Following Darkness like a Dream:

      There is no telling what might happen there is so much still to hear.

      The main goings on of the play were brought about by the fairies. The matter of ill-matched lovers was there to begin with but without the intrusions of Oberon there would have been no mistaking of Helena by Lysander or of Hernia by Demetrius, nor the straightening out of the mistakes. That the means of the various enchantments are the works of unseen powers is in one sense inconsequential enough though in another it works together with our understanding that love comes and goes according to no one's plans and that love, too, leads to the mistaking of truth as much as any filter or friend ever could. The inconsequential and the significant are one, the poetry is the poetry of moonlight where that which is sometimes seems not to be, and that which is not is often most magical. But as the play ha sit, what happens is the fairies' doing.

      The immortals know no morality and they are indifferent to justice. They are very like the Olympian deities except that they are minuscule and hurl only minuscule thunders. But they are similarly proud and splendid, similarly careless, and their interest in mortals is similarly dilettante. They provide their comment on the divinity and misery of lovers and on their subjection to fate. They can comment on the vanity of good sense and prudence and honest labor and on the transience of everything but their own power.

      And if Oberon and Titania may be something like the gods, they are also something like the fates, or at least they are as bound up with the errors they have loosed upon the world as the world itself is. They
are certainly the determiners of the fortunes of mortals, capriciously transferring affections, righting wrongs at will and as mischievously doing good. But they themselves are as bound up as the mortals they bind, as caught up in the ways of jealousy and recrimination and spite and affection as if those very onsers and attacks and repulsions were the substance of fate itself. What one might think of as the inherently limiting conditions of humans are as compelling and fateful for them.

      But there is a strangely ironic twist which gives these particular immortals a character appropriate to beings or powers much greater than even fate, and we may distinguish this from that as the Greeks appear to have done in thinking of ananke, the iron rule of necessity. This is made known to us in the fixity of the relationship of the pair - their union is indissoluble. No matter what the wars they foment in heaven or on earth, what cataclysms and eruptions they cause, they themselves are forever inseparable, they are the very principle of life and union, as fixed in their dependence on each other as any center to a circle.


      Alfred Bates: In A Midsummer Night's Dream, there flows a luxuriant vein of the noblest and most fantastical invention; the most extraordinary combination of very dissimilar ingredients seems to have brought about without effort by some ingenious and lucky accident, and the colors are of such clear transparency that we think the whole of the variegated fabric may be blown away with a breath. The fairy world here described resembles those elegant pieces of arabesque, where little genii with butterfly wings rise, half embodied, above the flower-cups. Twilight, moonshine, dew and spring perfumes are the element of these tender spirits; they assist nature in embroidering her carpet with green leaves, many-colored flowers and glittering insects; in the human world they do but make sport childishly and waywardly with their beneficent or noxious influences. Their most violent rage dissolves in good-natured raillery; their passions, stripped of all earthly matter, are merely an ideal dream. To correspond with this, the love of mortals is painted as a poetical enchantment which, by a contrary enchantment, may be immediately suspended and then renewed again. The different parts of the plot; the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta, Oberon and Titania's quarrel, the flight of the two pair of lovers, and the theatrical maneuvers of the mechanics, are so lightly and happily interwoven that they seem necessary to each other for the formation of the whole.

      Karl Elze: In Germany, as well as in England, it has repeatedly been pointed out that A Midsummer Night's Dream in its character resembles a masque. It is true that we possess comparatively few indications for forming a correct estimate of the earlier state of masques, yet these few are sufficient to enable us to judge of the resemblance between them and Shakespeare's most charming comedy. We know that masques undoubtedly arose out of 'dumb shows' whose chief attraction consisted in splendid costumes and decorations, in music and dances, and which were only gradually furnished with dialogue. From the fact that the object of masques was to celebrate marriages in high life and similar occasions, it is obvious that it was not their aim to solve a dramatic problem; in them the carrying out of an action and the delineation of characters always remained a secondary object, not to say that they were excluded. On the other hand allegories and mythological subjects predominated. These fanciful and ever-varying pageants, as Drake says, "had higher aims and more important effects, and, while ostensibly constructed for the purpose of compliment and entertainment, either directly inculcated some lesson of moral wisdom, or more importantly obtained their end by impersonating the vices and virtues, and exhibiting a species of ethic drama". Masques did not reach their highest perfection in the reign of Henry VIII, as Warton maintains, but under James I, through Jonson, whose masques are declared both by Gifford, his enthusiastic admirer and apologizer, and by the less prejudiced Drake, to be not only the flower of their species, but the flower of all Jonson's poetical productions as well. James's and Ben Jonson's pedantic learning met in the pleasure which both of them derived from this verified mythology, while it opened to the queen a welcome field for the display of her love of pomp. Jonson gave the masque a regular structure and definite articulation; above all, he made a sharp distinction between the actual masque and the anti-masque, or interlude as it had previously been called. The former was kept dignified and splendid, for in it appeared the noble amateurs who have emphatically styled the 'Maskers' the farcical anti-masque, on the other hand, was performed partly by servants, partly by actors hired for the purpose, and was generally separated from the actual masque by a change of scene. It was developed into a comic counterpart of the masque, where all kinds of super and sub-human creatures delighted the spectators with their 'Galliards' and 'Corantos' whereas the 'Maskers' only took part in the minuet-like 'Measures.' The anti-masque was frequently divided into two semi-choruses, and several anti-masques sometimes occur in one
and the same play. Jonson, who possessed little talent for humor and wit, and was inclined to pedantic pathos, accordingly thought rather disparagingly of anti-masques; in 'Neptune's Triumph' he calls them 'things so heterogeneous to all device, mere by-works, and at best outlandish nothings.'

      Paul Olson: The opinion that A Midsummer Night's Dream is largely a shimmering fabric of "moonlight with a touch of moonshine", 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 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, 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'etre 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.


      G.K. Chesterton: A Midsummer Night's Dream is a psychological study, not of a solitary man, but of a spirit that unites mankind. The six men may sit talking in an inn; they may not know each other's names or see each other's faces before or after, but 'night or wine or great stories, or some rich and branching discussion may make them all at once, if not absolutely with each other, at least with that invisible seventh man who is the harmony of all of them. That seventh man is the hero of A Midsummer Night's Dream. In pure poetry and the intoxication of words, Shakespeare never rose higher than he rises in this play. But in spite of this fact, the supreme literary merit of A Midsummer Night's Dream is a merit of design. The amazing symmetry, the amazing artistic and moral beauty of that design, can be stated very briefly. The story opens in the sane and common world with the pleasant seriousness of very young lovers and very young friends. Then, as the figures advance into the tangled wood of young troubles and stolen happiness, a change and bewilderment begins to fall on them. They lose their way and their wits for they are in the heart of fairyland. Their words, their hungers, their very figures grow more and more dim and fantastic, like dreams within dreams, in the supernatural mist of Puck. Then the dream-fumes begin to clear, and characters and spectators begin to awaken together to the noise of horns and dogs and the clean and bracing morning. Theseus, the incarnation of a happy and generous rationalism, expounds in hackneyed and superb lines the sane view of such psychic experiences, pointing out with a reverent and sympathetic skepticism that all these fairies and spells are themselves but the emanations, the unconscious masterpieces, of man himself. The whole company falls back into a splendid human laughter.

      Wolfgang Clemen: In the second Act Oberon orders Puck to fetch him the magic herb "love-in-idleness". This request, however, is clad in an imaginative recollection of that day when Cupid "flying between the cold moon and the earth" missed with his fiery shaft a "a fair Vestal", hitting instead "a little western flower; before milk-white, now purple". Thus the herb is introduced which, as a supernatural agent, is to cause so much confusion in the following scenes. But not only the past transformation of this natural herb into a supernatural one is disclosed tours; we are also given a glimpse of that whole fairy world of myth and wonder that becomes alive in the fairies' sons and the many references to their nature. For an Elizabethan audience, however, the "fair Vestal" unmistakably pointed towards Queen Elizabeth, so that here Shakespeare again, as he often does in the histories, makes the past suggest the actuality of his contemporary world.

      The relationship of A Midsummer Night’s Dream to the court masque-something which Act V, Scene I, line 40 draws attention to — also comes in here. The masques formed a central part of the entertainment that were always given at court celebrations, and several noticeable features in A Midsummer Night's Dream clearly relate to the genre of the court masque. The music and dances, the appearance of fairylike creatures possessed of supernatural qualities, the employment of motifs involving magic and metamorphosis, and the vigorous stylization and symmetrical structure of some parts do indeed remind one of the court masques. Finally; the scenes with Bottom, Quince, and company may be compared to the anti-masque, which formed the burlesque and realistic counterpart performed together with the masque itself.

      A study of the interrelation of the four plots reveals how their contrasts, juxtapositions, and dovetailing help to disclose the meaning of the drama. The play begins with a scene between Theseus and Hippolyta, who do not appear again until Act IV. In Act V their wedding is celebrated. The plot involving Theseus and Hippolyta can therefore be styled as "enveloping action" that provides the play with a definite framework and a firmly established temporal scaffolding; it stands outside the world of dream, enchantment, and love entanglements, suggesting the sphere of everyday reality out of which the events of the drama first develop and to which they then ultimately return. The section in Scene I, with Egeus, Hernia, Lysander, and Demetrius related the Theseus-Hippolyta plot to that of the lovers, for Theseus himself appears as arbitrator in the love dispute and it will be on his wedding day that the harsh verdict he passes on Hermia is to take effect, should she not have changed her mind by that date. This verdict is the cause of Hermia and Lysander's decision to flee into the wood near Athens, so that with his the events of the second and third Acts have already been determined. The comic sub-plot, moreover, beginning in Scene II, with the gathering of the artisans to prepare themselves for the rehearsal, is also announced in Scene I, insofar as we learn of the entertainments to be presented on Theseus' wedding-day Theseus' promise to woo Hippolyta "with pomp, with triumph, and with reveling" can also be understood as an allusion to the dramatic entertainments that are to come later. From the very beginning, then, our expectations are raised in connection with the wedding-day; which is to bring with it the artisans' play; the decision regarding the love-dispute between the Athenian couples, and the festive marriage of Theseus and Hippolyta.

      If this were all that Shakespeare had given us, we would have had a comedy little different from his early ones. The plot connected with the fairies, however, with Oberon and Titania at its center, not only brings considerable complications into the course of the above-mentioned matters, but also adds to the whole drama a new feature that Shakespeare had never employed before. For the supernatural, which intervenes in the activities of the characters, turns their intentions upside down, and directs their actions. It is the fairies who are responsible for the confusion, and also for the final reconciliation, thus substituting enchantment and arbitrariness for the lovers' own responsibility and power of will. Yet these influences also have repercussions on the fairies themselves, because Titania thereby falls in love with the ass-headed Bottom. Thus the world of the fairies is linked with that of the artisans, and we get those incomparably comic situations that are themselves the outcome of the fairies' intervention. Finally, a link between the plots dealing with the fairies and Theseus emerges in the conversation between Oberon and Hipplyta are recalled; and this is a moment that accelerates the pair's mutual jealousy and estrangement.


      Frank Sidgwick: A Midsummer Night's Dream is more of a masque than a drama-an entertainment rather than a play. The characters are mostly puppets, and scarcely any except Bottom has the least psychological interest for the reader. Probability is thrown to the winds; anachronism is rampant; classical figures are mixed with fairies and sixteenth-century Warwickshire peasants. The main plot is sentimental, the secondary plot is sheer buffoonery; while the story of Titania's jealousy and Oberon's method of curing it can scarcely be dignified by the title of plot at all. The threads which bind together these three tales, however ingeniously fastened, are fragile...

      It is perhaps a permissible fancy in convert Theseus' words, "the lunatic, the lover, and the poet'' to illustrate the triple appeal made by the three ingredients-the grotesque, the sentimental, and the fantastic. Eact part, of course, is colored by the poet's genius, and the whole is devoted to the comic aspect of love, to eternal youth and endless caprice, laughing at laws and laughed at by the secure. "What fools these mortals be!" is the comment of the immortal; the corollary, left unspoken by those outside the pale, being "What fools these lovers be!"

      The main characteristics of Shakespeare's fairies may be summarized shortly. They are commonly under a king and a queen, who hold a court; they are very small, light, swift, elemental; they share in the life of Nature; they are fond of dancing and singing; they are invisible and immortal; they prefer night, and midnight is their favorite hour; they fall in over with mortals, steal babies and leave changelings, and usurp the function of Hymen in blessing the marriage-bed. Oberon, "king of shadows", can apparently see things hidden from Puck.

      The fairy of folklore Shakespeare's day is nearly everything that the fairies of A Midsummer Night's Dream are; we may possibly except their exiguity their relations in love with mortals, and their hymeneal functions. His conception of their size as infinitesimal at least differs from that of the popular stories where (as far as can be ascertained) they are shown to be about the size of moral children.

      Hazlitt: Bottom the Weaver is a character that has not had justice done to him. He is the most romantic of all mechanicals. And what a list of companions he has—Quince the Carpenter, Snug the Joiner, Flute the Bellows-mender, Snout the Tinker, Starveling the Tailor; and then again, what a group of fairy attendants, Puck, Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Moth, and Mustardseed! It has been observed that Shakespeare's characters are constructed upon deep physiological principles; and there is something in this play which looks very like it. Bottom the Weaver, who takes the lead of "This crew of patches, rude mechanicals, That work for bread upon Athenian stalls." follows a sedentary trade, and he is accordingly represented as conceited, serious and fantastical. He is ready to undertake anything and everything, as if it was as much a matter of course as the motion of his loom and shuttle. He is for playing the tyrant, the lover, the lady; and the lion. "He will roar that it shall do any man's heart good to hear him;" and this being objected to as improper, he still has a resource in his good opinion of himself, and "will roar you and "twere any nightingale." Snug the Joiner is the moral man of the piece, who proceeds by measurement and discretion in all things. You see him with his rule and compasses in his hand. "Have you the lion's part written? Pray you, if it be, give it me, for I am slow of study." — "You may do it extempore," says Quince, "for it is nothing but roaring." Starveling the Tailor keeps the peace, and objects to the lion and the drawn sword. "I believe we must leave the killing out when all's done." Starveling, however, does not start the objections himself, but seconds them when made by others, as if he had not spirit to express his fears without encouragement. It is too much to suppose all this intentional: but it very luckily falls out so. Nature includes all that is implied in the most subtle analytical distinctions; and the same distinctions will be found in Shakespeare. Bottom, who is not only chief actor, but stage manager for the occasion, has a device to obviate the danger of frightening the ladies: "Write me a prologue, and let the prologue seem to say, we will do no harm with our swords, and that Pyramus is not killed indeed; and for better assurance, tell them that I, Pyramus, am not Pyramus, but Bottom the Weaver: this will put them out of fear." Bottom seems to have understood the subject of dramatic illusion at least as well as any modern essayist. If our holiday mechanic rules the roast among his fellows, he is no less at home in his new character of an ass, "with amiable cheeks, and fairly large ears." He instinctively acquires a most learned taste, and grows fastidious in the choice of dried peas and bottled hay. He is quite familiar with his new attendants, and assigns them their parts with all due gravity. "Monsieur Cobweb, good Monsieur, get your weapon in your hand, and kill me a red-colored humble-bee on the top of a thistle, and, good Monsieur, bring me the honey-bag." What an exact knowledge is here strewn of natural history!

      David Marshall: Spirits and fairies cannot be represented, they cannot even be painted, they can only be believed. A Midsummer Night's Dream seems designed to engage the issue at stake in this assertion of Charles Lamb's. Lamb makes his claim after drawing the conclusion that "the plays of Shakespeare are less calculated for performance on a stage, than those of almost any other dramatist whatsoever." Although he is writing about the fitness of Shakespeare's tragedies for stage representation, one often has the sense that he is describing the problems presented by producing Shakespeare's "dream play."

      Ernest Schanzer: Oberon and Titania, though very different in kind from their attendant fairies, are no more childlike or irresponsible than they. When commentators speak of "little Titnia", or when Professor Charlton, lamenting the undomesticated life led by Oberon and Titania, tells us that "acorn-cups impose no fellowship", it is evident that these critics take the King and Queen of fairyland to be of the same miniature brand as their attendant spirits. That Shakespeare did not drink of them in that way is plain enough. The Titania who winds Bottom in her arms is clearly a full-grown woman. Not only would it be unactable to have a tiny Titania make love to Bottom, but it would also be unthinkable. For the humor of their love scenes depends on our realization that it is a supremely beautiful woman who is enamored of this weaver turned ass. (Had Shakespeare thought of the fairy queen as diminutive in size, "Titania" would have been a most unhappy choice of name for her). Shakespeare clearly thinks of Titania and Oberon as of the same stature as the traditional English fairies, who were considered to be of normal height or slightly below it. Nor are they depicted as ethereal, mere gossamer and moonlight. Not only Titania's "Sleep thou, and I will wind thee in my arms", but also Oberon's.

Come my queen, take hands with me

      And rock the ground whereon these sleepers be made against this impression. But more harmful than the notion of Oberon's and Titania's diminutive size is the notion of their childishness and irresponsibility. Of this, I can find no trace in the play. They are the counterpart in the spirit world of Theseus and Hippolyta, like them full of stateliness and dignity; though more ceremonious and distant. Their quarrel is not a children's squabble, no sooner engaged in than forgotten, but a quarrel which, if we were to credit Titania, has been in progress for many months, disrupting the whole body politic of Fairland. Only thus can be understood Titania's speech about the chaos in Nature, which has arisen out of their quarrel. This is more than a merely poetic allusion to a year of unusually bad weather. It is rather the disorder in the macrocosm which, in so many of Shakespeare's plays, accompanies disorder n the body politic, here the state of fairy dom. Of irresponsibility, I can find no more sign in Oberon and Titania than of childlikeness. Neither Titania's rearing of the little changeling boy for the sake of his mother, and her refusal to buy domestic peace at the price of parting with him, nor Oberon's treatment of the Athenian lovers suggests of parting with him, nor Oberon's treatment of the Athenian lovers suggests irresponsibility.

      G.K. Hunter: Seen against the fairies, the lovers are absurd; set against the rational love of Theseus and Hippolyta, the mature and royal lovers who frame and explain the occasion of the play, it is the irrationality of their emotion which is emphasized. This receives its magisterial definition in Theseus's famous speech about "The lunatic, the lover and the poet". But even if Theseus had not spoken, or even if we were disposed not to allow the objectivity of what he says, there is plenty of evidence from the lovers' own lips to convict their love of irrationality.

      This description of love, which Helena puts forward to justify her betrayal of friendship and abandonment of reason, is picked up in the next Act in a more obviously fallacious form. Helena remarks on the capacity of love to work without knowing the evidence of the senses (the eyes); in Lysander's case reason is only a means of returning to the eyes of his mistress, and reading irrational love stories. But the clearest comment on this infatuation comes not in the adventures of the lovers at all, but in the parallel situation of Titania and Bottom. Titania awakes and finds herself in love with Bottom, It's head and all. Like the other lovers, her first care is to justify the wisdom of her choice. Just as Bottom is the only moral to see the fairies, so here he is the only one in the moonlit wood to see the daylight truth about love. But in both cases the knowledge is useless to him, since he supposes that "an is but an ass, if he o about to expound this". The advantage he has over the lovers is illusory for the cannot make use of it.

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