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A Midsummer Night's Dream
William Shakespeare


THE PLAY

THE PLOT

In the ancient city of Athens a wedding is about to take place between Theseus, duke of Athens, and Hippolyta, the Amazon warrior queen whom he has wooed and won. They meet in the duke's palace to discuss their marriage festivities. Suddenly, Egeus storms in, extremely upset. He wants his daughter, Hermia, to marry Demetrius, who is dutifully in love with her. Hermia, however, is in love with Lysander and refuses to give in to her father's demands. The two suitors and the woman they both love state their case before the duke. Theseus explains that Athenian law is on the side of the father: Hermia must heed his wishes, not follow her own desire. In fact, Hermia must either obey the law, remain a virgin and enter a nunnery, or die! Hermia is given until the next new moon- the wedding day of Theseus and Hippolyta- to make her decision. She and Lysander secretly plan, instead, to flee Athens and live outside of town with an aunt of Lysander's. Another young woman, Helena, arrives. She is in love with Demetrius, but he will have none of her. The lovers tell her of their plan to elope.

In the house of Quince, a carpenter, several Athenian workingmen meet to discuss their plans to present a play as entertainment for the wedding of the duke. Quince, Snug, Bottom, Flute, Snout, and Starveling have decided on a play entitled "The most lamentable comedy, and most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisby." Parts are assigned to each player, but only after Bottom, full of boundless energy and enthusiasm, shows how he could play all the parts himself. They agree to rehearse the following evening in a wood outside of town.

The scene shifts to that Athenian wood, but now the players are of an entirely different order. They are Oberon, the king of the fairies, his queen, Titania, and Puck (or Robin Goodfellow), a spritely attendant of the king. Oberon and Titania have been quarreling over the possession of a young Indian boy that both want, but the Queen will not hand him over. Oberon, with the aid of Puck, plans his revenge on Titania. He will drop the juice of a magic flower into the eyes of his sleeping queen. When she awakes, she will fall in love with whomever (or whatever) she sees first, preferably "some vile thing." Then she will forget about the boy!

Meanwhile, Demetrius and Helena enter the wood. Seeing Helena's loveless plight, Oberon instructs Puck to charm the eyes of Demetrius as well, so that he will love Helena.

Now Lysander and Hermia arrive, en route to their elopement. Mistaking Lysander for Demetrius, Puck anoints the eyes of Lysander, who awakes and declares his love for Helena. Hermia awakes in the woods alone, having dreamt of a serpent eating her heart.

On time for their rehearsal, the workingmen also arrive in the wood and begin to sort out "Pyramus and Thisby." Mischievous Puck jumps at the chance to cause trouble. He catches Bottom and places an ass's head on him. The other rustics flee in terror. But Titania's reaction is different. Charmed by the love juice, she immediately falls in love with Bottom, ass's head and all.

The lovers regroup in confusion. Now both Lysander and Demetrius profess love for Helena instead of for Hermia. Angers flare up and swords are drawn, but Puck leads everyone in magic circles so no real harm comes. Oberon, seeing the mistake that has taken place, has Puck remove the charm from Lysander's eyes so that his love returns for Hermia. Demetrius remains "enchanted" with his Helena.

Titania is also released from her enchantment. Reunited with Oberon, she surrenders the Indian boy to the king. The lovers, startled by the arrival of Theseus and his court, awaken as if from a mysterious dream, properly in love with each other, but startled as to how they've gotten there. Theseus, finding that things have worked out rather neatly, overrides Egeus and announces that the three weddings will take place simultaneously. Bottom is relieved of his ass's head and returns to Quince's house to continue rehearsing the play.

In the palace of Theseus, preparations commence for the wedding festivities. Bottom and company perform their "lamentable comedy." A comedy it is, and though the duke and the others offer much jesting commentary about the production, they are ultimately well pleased with the entertainment. The three sets of newlyweds adjourn to their beds.

Puck arrives to sweep away the last grains of sleepy enchantment. Oberon and Titania offer blessings upon the houses of the lovers. Puck, with a glint in his eye, asks for applause. After all, he suggests, these proceedings may have been nothing "but a dream."

[A Midsummer Night's Dream Contents]


THE CHARACTERS

  • THESEUS

    As duke of Athens, Theseus occupies an important social and political position that is at the heart of his character. Though he had a lively past, filled with heroic war exploits and romantic conquests, he now is a figure of the Athenian establishment, upholding the social order. As such, he represents, in contrast to the volatile lovers, the stabilizing force of marriage.

    Theseus is a traditional Greek mythic hero. He is mentioned in many ancient texts, including Homer, Euripides, Plutarch, and Ovid. He is probably most famous for having killed the monstrous Minotaur, in the labyrinth of Minos on Crete. Though there is occasional mention of his former deeds, the person of Shakespeare's Theseus is as much the playwright's invention as he is a legendary figure.

    With his upholding of the social order comes Theseus's praise of reason as a primary power. He and Hippolyta are untouched by the fairy realm. They seem to be above the magic, but you might also see them as being outside of it. Theseus's reliance on reason blocks him off from some of the more mystical realms of human experience. In Act V, he draws a famous comparison between the lover, the lunatic, and the poet. He feels they are all under the sway of their imaginations, which blinds them to reality. In consequence, some realms of passion and art are closed to him.

    Theseus may be trapped in his position, or he may be filling it grandly. In either case, he has a kindly awareness of his subjects. Though he may not be appreciative of art per se, he understands the good intentions of the actors. He knows that his position alone has a certain power and seeks to use it with a clear and just mind.

  • HIPPOLYTA

    A warrior in her own right, Hippolyta maintains a kind of aloof dignity. She too is a Greek legendary figure, an Amazon queen of fierce pride and strength. In the beginning of the play she counters Theseus's impatience for the wedding day with a cool, imperial rationality of her own. Yet she doesn't rely so completely on reason: she is charmed and a little disturbed by the lovers' stories. She's not willing to discount their tales completely. While viewing the performance of the rustic workingmen, she seems to be impatient with the amateur nature of the production, though she warms to it by the end. Perhaps she too feels the necessity to temper her natural passions with a stateliness proper to her office. Compare her to the emotionally stormy lovers. How might her reserve be seen as a more mature kind of relating? Both she and Theseus bracket the play, beginning and end, like the pillars of society between which the Midsummer Madness occurs.

  • HERMIA

    Hermia shows her spunkiness right from the beginning. Though the force of familial and social power are brought heavily to bear upon her, she sticks to her guns. Her first words are a defense of Lysander against the accusations of her father, Egeus, and Theseus. She asks that her father look with her eyes, to try to see her viewpoint. She stands up for what she believes in even though it may mean her death. It's easy to side with Hermia- but what could you say in defense of her father's position?

    Hermia is unswerving in her devotion to Lysander through all his changes and always gives him the benefit of the doubt. She loves him with an authenticity that goes beyond "doting," and her pain at being betrayed by him seems equally real.

    She is described as having a dark complexion and being small, but you don't get more physical detail than that. Her temper is as fierce as her love; when it's kindled by jealousy toward Helena, she turns into a real spitfire. Although, especially in the beginning, Hermia speaks the proper courtly romantic poetry with Lysander, she shows that there is something beyond propriety in her character. But when it comes to defending her virgin modesty in the woods, she's quick to make Lysander keep his distance.

    Hermia's combination of passion and judgment is set off from the feelings of all the other lovers. She knows what she wants, is willing to make great sacrifices for it, will fight like a lioness in defense of it, and ultimately trusts in her power. She's not above love-foolishness, but she gives to the romantic comedy a sturdy foundation.

  • LYSANDER

    It's hard to get a grip on the character of Lysander. Indeed, because of the frustrating interference of Puck, it's hard for him to keep a grip on himself. As you read the play, you may have difficulty telling him and Demetrius apart. They both seem to be defined more by the object of their desires than by any qualities in and of themselves.

    Lysander has the unlucky distinction of professing his undying eternal love for two different women, one after the other. It certainly makes us suspicious of the steadfastness of his character. Consequently, the beautiful, flowery, romantic poetry he speaks rings hollow. He's made the butt of Shakespeare's ironic comedy of fickle love. He goes through all the right motions, says all the right words, but doesn't show any depth of character. He defends his new infatuation with Helena by swearing it comes from reason. But since you know it comes from Cupid's magic flower, both Lysander's love and reason seem suspect. His normalcy is his main characteristic: he's just a lover, doing the foolish things that lovers do. Therefore, don't be too hard on him. Look at him through Hermia's eyes; why do you think she loves him? We see many ways in which his love seems false, but in what ways do you view his love as true?

  • HELENA

    Helena is primarily defined by her relationship to love, but unfortunately that love is lacking. The unhappy experience of unrequited love seems to have penetrated to her very core. Although attractive, tall, and willowy, she questions her own virtues because being unloved makes her feel unworthy of love.

    It's true that Demetrius originally loved her, and she has cause for being upset that he now seems to care for Hermia. But Helena is a prime example of the ill effects of "doting" too much: she loses respect for herself and, consequently, some of ours for her. Her running after Demetrius seems foolish and shallow to many readers. Do you think she is a prime target for some feminist consciousness- raising? She's throwing herself away for a man you have reason to believe isn't all that worthy.

    Helena is so used to being rejected that she might not be able to recognize real love if it came her way. When both Lysander and Demetrius turn their loving gazes on her, she can only suspect that they're making fun of her. Though you know she's right to doubt their sincerity, what would have happened if one of them were sincere? Even at the end, she feels that Demetrius is hers, and yet somehow is not. Since he's the one holdover with charmed eyes, she's more correct than she knows. Neither she nor Hermia speaks in the last act. Perhaps they're both wondering about what they've gotten, having gotten what they supposedly wanted.

  • DEMETRIUS

    Like Lysander, Demetrius is difficult to identify except by his relation to the one he loves, or, more particularly, to the one who loves him. Helena's chasing after him and his irritation with her are the primary marks of his character. Since in his uncharmed state he even threatens Helena with bodily harm, he comes off as not quite the gracious courtly lover he means to be. And you may wonder, too, about how easily his eye was distracted from Helena by Hermia in the first place. His constant remarks at the performance of "Pyramus and Thisby" show him to be clever, but maybe a little rude, too. In any event, as the one person still under the spell of fairy magic and therefore not seeing with true eyes, he seems a bit foolish laughing at the acted "lovers" in the play. He doesn't know it, but he's still in a play of his own.

  • OBERON

    As king of his magical realm, Oberon is the most powerful figure in the play. Everything about him is commanding, from his language to his magic spells. He is in essence an artist: he knows his craft and how it operates, and he can use his skills to their fullest effect. Since he sets in motion the charmed encounters that are at the heart of the play, he is the author of the plot. The characters play out their dramas to fulfill his needs and wishes. He alone has the overview that an author has.

    At times Oberon seems to be almost an elemental, natural force. Because of his quarrel with Titania, the world of nature is completely out of balance. Only a primal power could wreak that kind of havoc on nature. This doesn't mean he is a perfect, all-powerful being. His anger toward Titania has overtones of both jealousy and revenge. You may feel that she has become obsessed with the Indian boy and is neglecting her royal duties as consort of the fairy king, but doesn't Oberon's response seem petulant, maybe a little mean? He is, after all, quite willing to humiliate her and seems to take inordinate joy in it. Yet from the start he is touched by the lovers' plight, and his aim is to unite them, as it is to unite himself and Titania. He knows the power of concord over discord. He isn't all-seeing enough to prevent Puck from making the mistake that brings about the confusion for the lovers, but he knows how to right the wrong that's been done.

    Oberon's brilliant poetry is the key to his importance in the play. His speeches contain some of the most extravagant writing in all of Shakespeare. Oberon raises poetry to the level of magic, as if his words were part of his fairy magic lore. He has a commanding knowledge of flowers, which seem to be at the heart of the fairy realm. The dangerous love juice is contained in a flower, as is its antidote. His famous description of Titania's favorite resting place calls out the names of flowers as if just to speak them were to induce a spell. And, indeed, he does induce a spell of poetry. If he describes something, like the Arrow of Cupid striking the flower, or the dawn rising, he does so with such command of detail and sensuality that the scene comes to life before you.

    When Oberon finally restores harmony to his relationship with Titania, he seems to do so for everyone else too. Bottom has his ass's head removed in a twinkling, and the lovers are reunited. The wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta can now proceed. The outer edges of the play are held down by the orderly Theseus and Hippolyta, but its inner core burns with the conflict, passion, and magic of the fairy rulers. Theseus mentions that all theater is made up of shadow-plays. When Puck refers to Oberon as the "king of shadows," he's letting us see that as poet and playwright, Oberon is a master of the art.

  • TITANIA

    Titania is a regal and commanding person. She is not readily willing to give in to the king, and her insistence on keeping the changeling shows both her strong personal will and the respect she has for her priestess. Though she may lack Oberon's knowledge of magic, she is certainly a primary power like him and has her own court of fairy attendants. She's not about to take any nonsense from him, and she throws his past romantic exploits right in his face. Try to put yourself in her position as well as in Oberon's. What do you think her rights are, especially as a partner in marriage?

    Though she may not know the spells, she has the fairy charm. The world she moves in seems to have a special magical grace. She lives among flowers; even her fairy attendants have floral names. Song and dance seem to be the nature of her fairy business. She's not a match for Oberon's magic- he's able to put the doting charm on her. But her world, even more than his, seems to be an enchanted one, delicate, strange, of another dimension and size.

    Titania, like Oberon, has the power of poetry. Her description of the natural world in disarray is one of the high points of the play. She seems to invest the disturbed natural forces with her own emotional distress, so that the waves, air, and mud seem to be living, breathing, personal things. She knows the range and importance of her and Oberon's power. She may not see that her obsession is as equally to blame as Oberon's jealousy, but she understands the fullest dimensions of the resulting quarrel. Her description of the changeling's mother is a marvel of poetic imagery. The comparison between the pregnant woman and the sails filled with wind makes the world seem filled with a female creative force. Titania embodies that power.

  • PUCK

    Jester and jokester, Puck, otherwise known as Robin Goodfellow, is like a wild, untamed member of the fairy clan. Though Oberon tells him they are "spirits of another sort," Puck, with his connection to English legend and folklore, seems related to a slightly more dangerous kind of sprite.

    Not that he is truly malevolent. Although his tricks make people uncomfortable, they don't seem to do any permanent damage. He casts an ironic eye on humanity. Thinking people fools, he loves to make fools of them. But laughter, not tears, is his aim. He delights in mischief-making, like a boy bent on fun. He's the childlike antidote to Oberon's seriousness; that's why he's jester as well as jokester.

    With his quickness, ventriloquism, and shape-changing ability, he clearly has magic fairy powers of his own. Meddling in the affairs of lovers and administering Cupid's love juice, he's reminiscent of Pan. And like him he seems to have some animal nature. He even tells us that he likes to take the form of animals and that he communicates with them.

    He is also reminiscent of the Greek god Hermes, the messenger. Like him, he's a go-between for higher powers. Most of the magic he does in the play is at Oberon's request. He's more the instrument or administerer of magic than the creator of it. He is definitely in the service of Oberon, regarding him with respect and a little fear.

    As the liaison between the various groups of characters in the play, Puck is also the character who communicates directly with us, the audience. His swiftness (he can fly around the earth in forty minutes) may give him the ability to cut through dimensions, too. He steps out of the play at the end to suggest that all we've seen may be just a dream- and you can be sure he says it with a wink!

  • BOTTOM

    Clown, actor, weaver, even romantic hero- Bottom is a complex character. He's able to attract sympathy in the midst of his absurd buffoonery and to elicit concern even though he exhibits some obnoxious qualities. This mix of characteristics has made readers feel many contradictory things about him. Some say he is a boor, that he treats his fellow players with a lack of respect; others note his large ego and need for being in the spotlight. Still other readers find him a perfect clown and take his posturing as harmless joking. He may, of course, reflect all these things. What is your analysis of Bottom?

    He is certainly filled with energy; it seems to stream out of him sometimes in ways that he can't stop. He never uses one word when two will do; in the same way, he'd rather not play just one part when he could play them all. Bottom is a ham. He's also a bad actor. The two qualities together make him inevitably funny to us. His enthusiasm trips him up again and again. He is enamored of words. If he misuses or mispronounces them he doesn't notice- though we do. He thinks he knows more than he does know, and it can make him seem arrogant, just as his overabundant energy can make him seem like a bully. But the testimony of his fellow workers makes it clear that they take it all in stride; in fact, they adore him. They seem to appreciate his energy and his acting ability. They're even a little bit in awe of him. And his fondness for them is equally apparent. When he returns to them at last, they are his "lads," his "hearts." The affection these men share is real and touching, especially amid all the confused feelings of love in the rest of the play.

    Though he's a bumbler, Bottom also seems to be possessed of a special grace. As a working-class tradesman unaccustomed to finery and delicate manners, his treatment of his fairy servants is a model of courtly behavior. He's not just kind; he's interested in them. He may look like an ass at first glance, but another look reveals something deeper.

    Part of his special quality is indicated by the fact that he alone of the mortals actually becomes involved with the fairy world. That Bottom doesn't think Titania's love or dalliance with him is preposterous means he is open to the fairy power in a way no one else is. He may cut a ridiculous figure, wearing an ass's head, but what's interesting is that these strange little creatures don't look ridiculous to him and he's at ease with them as with other persons. When he wakes from his dream, he's unwilling to completely let go of his experience. He feels somehow a joke has been played on him, but he also senses something deeper at the heart of the joke. He tests it on his tongue, savors it, releases it, and calls it back. He's not attached to reason like Theseus, and he does have something of the artist in him. He's willing to absorb his magical experience like a vision and let it find its own meaning. He acts like a fool, but Shakespeare shows us he's not a fool.

    Bottom is larger than life. He has a huge appetite. He'd rather engage something than let it go by. He's unself-conscious about both his real abilities and his foibles. That gives him, in the truest sense, a sense of humility. And it's a peculiarity of human nature that humility is ennobling. Bottom's not such a joke, after all.

  • QUINCE, SNUG, FLUTE, SNOUT, AND STARVELING

    These simple folk carve out their own realm in the play, with Bottom at the front. Shakespeare has them speak prose, serving as a sharp contrast to the poetry of the lovers and fairies. They stand as representatives of an innocent real world, plain, good-natured, and well-meaning. Their preposterous bad acting and terrible attempts at poetry are made fun of, but their good intentions and shared fellowship are always apparent. Shakespeare may use them to satirize elements of his theater, but he does so in a way that makes their theatrics, not them, the objects of his comedy. Their burlesque may make them look ridiculous, but as characters they fare better than the more articulate lovers do. They are a necessary adjunct to the other worlds of A Midsummer Night's Dream. They counteract the duke's stiff reliance on reason, the lovers' high moral flights of fancy, and the fairies' elegant and primal poetry. All of these realms together make a recognizably human world.

[A Midsummer Night's Dream Contents]


OTHER ELEMENTS

SETTING

Though A Midsummer Night's Dream takes place in and around Athens in ancient Greece, you will be hard-pressed to find many details of Greek life. Instead, you will learn much about Elizabethan courtly and country life. While it professes to draw a picture of Athens, the play really seems to take place in England. Puck's descriptions of the tricks he plays on people are filled with details of English village life. And when Titania describes the pestilence and floods that have befallen the countryside since her quarrel with Oberon, she is clearly talking about England, with its manicured gardens and country games.

The real exploration of setting in this play has not so much to do with place as with realms or dimensions of experience. The beginning and the end of the play take place in the city, in the courtly urbane atmosphere of the palace of Theseus, the duke of Athens. It is daylight, and the mood is one of social order and reason. The whole middle of the play, however, takes place in the woods, during a moonlit night. The atmosphere here is one of disorder, of emotional indulgence and magic. ("Wood" was an Elizabethan word for "mad," as Demetrius observes in a pun.) When the characters enter the woods, their emotional lives are put in upheaval. Despite their protestations of rationality (Lysander, for example, pleads this continually), it is the irrational, romantic side of their natures that is revealed. So the two main settings are not just backdrops for the action. They symbolize two different emotional and psychic spheres of experience.

THEMES

Here are some major themes explored by Shakespeare in this play. You will find them explained in greater detail in the scene-by-scene discussion of the novel.

  1. TRUE AND FALSE LOVE

    The overriding theme of the play deals with the nature of love. Though true love seems to be held up as an ideal, false love is mostly what we are shown. Underneath his frantic comedy, Shakespeare seems to be asking the questions all lovers ask in the throes of their confusion: How do we know when love is real? How can we trust ourselves when we are so easily swayed by passion and by romantic conventions? Some readers sense a bitterness behind the comedy. But you will probably also recognize the truth behind Shakespeare's satire. Often, love leads us down blind alleys and makes us do things we regret later. The lovers in the play- especially the men- are made to seem rather shallow. They change the objects of their affections, all the time swearing eternal love to one or the other. Though marriage is held up at the end as a kind of unifying sacrament, and so gives a picture of a true, sensible, and socially sanctioned love, some critics have found its order a little hollow. The confusion that precedes the weddings seems, somehow, much more to the point.

  2. SEEING AND BEING BLIND

    From the opening scene, "eyes" and "seeing" are shown to be at the core of how we perceive things in love. Helena says that "love looks not with the eyes but with the mind." In Shakespeare's terms, when lovers are led astray by their feelings they aren't seeing correctly; their eyes are "blind," in the same way we now say that love is blind. Lovers frequently see what they want to, not what is really there. When lovers look with such self-charmed eyes, they are said to be "doting," a key term in the play. Do you know any such doting lovers?

  3. WAKING AND DREAMING

    All four lovers, plus Bottom and Titania, fall asleep in the course of the play, and all wake up to have themselves or their situations changed. An opposition between waking and dreaming is continually enforced, starting, of course, with the very title of the play. After waking from their final sleep, the lovers feel that their experiences were just dreams. Puck also offers us this explanation in his final monologue: that the play itself was a dream, and that we, the audience, were its slumbering dreamers. Moonlight is associated with dreaming, and daylight with waking. So all the fairy experiences that take place during the moonlit night may be just dreamlike hallucinations. Shakespeare leaves it for you to decide. Which of the experiences do you want to call "real"?

  4. REALITY AND ILLUSION

    All of the oppositions point toward our perception of reality. And nowhere can that perception be more interestingly tricked than in the theater, which is entirely built on the tension between illusion and reality, shadow and light. Shakespeare teases the audience about its gullibility at the same time he tests it. He makes fun of those who don't think we'd be able to tell the difference between a real or fake lion. He simultaneously charms the audience with a fairy world breathtaking in its magical beauty, making them want to believe in the preposterous. The theater is called a place of shadows, but with the right lighting it can come into a life of its own, challenging all our notions about what is real and what illusionary.

  5. REASON AND IMAGINATION

    Theseus is continually aligned with reason. Sometimes he seems to be held up as a model for social man, clear-sighted (not doting) and responsible. He intentionally sets himself in opposition to the imagination when he compares the lover, the lunatic, and the poet to each other. Their similarity, he says, comes from the fact that they are all swayed by their imaginations. Looking at the sad plight of the lovers, we might agree with Theseus's conclusions. But we can also see that a reliance on reason makes Theseus blind in a different way. The world of the fairies, of magic, mystery, and creative power, is closed to him. Shakespeare says, through Theseus, that the poet "gives to airy nothing / A local habitation and name." Though Theseus seems to say it with scorn, this is exactly what Shakespeare does for us by presenting the airy, spectral fairy world in detailed form. In that case, the workings of the imagination can be seen as something valuable, indeed. Bottom, waking from his dream, seems somehow able to hold the two worlds together. His immediate plan is to make his dream into a song. Perhaps, then, art is the bridge between the world of reason and the world of the imagination. Bottom says this is the power of "vision."

  6. CHANGE AND TRANSFORMATION

    People are changing their minds, their hearts, and their images throughout the play. The woods become a special arena in which these changes take place. Demetrius and Lysander both change the objects of their affection, triggered by that excellent agent of change, the love juice of Cupid. So love itself is seen as an agent of transformation. It turns people around, and sometimes makes asses of them. That is, of course, exactly what happens to Bottom, though it may seem at times that Titania is the one who has made an ass of herself.

    As day changes to night and back again, the fairies present a world transformed by magic, where nothing is what it seems, and everything may evolve into something else.

STYLE

Shakespeare's understanding of a wide range of human experience as well as different levels of consciousness enables him to adapt his style to his characters and their worlds. A Midsummer Night's Dream is unique in that its different sets of characters speak in different ways. And their styles of speech tell us things about them.

The ducal court and the romantic lovers speak a conventional courtly poetry, filled with mythical allusions and witty rhetorical gamesmanship. Its conventionality tells us as much about the characters as anything else. The lovers' well-fitted rhymes speak of a complacency, not a creative fire, at the core of their feelings. Note Lysander's first words to Hermia:

"How now, my love! Why is your cheek so pale?
How chance the roses there do fade so fast?"

(I, i, 128-129)

Considering Hermia has just been threatened with death, the rose metaphor seems a little flip. The deeper, threatening emotions of the situation are masked by the poetic rhetoric. But because Shakespeare presents the lovers as comic, not tragic, figures, we can enjoy the intricacy of their metaphors and rhymes while we laugh at their shallowness.

Except for their acted parts in the play at the wedding, the workingmen speak in prose. Shakespeare gives them a sense of being down-to-earth, appropriate to their occupations and simple hearts. When they try to speak poetically, the results are laughable. They continually misuse and mispronounce words, but Shakespeare treats them gently and their simplicity triumphs over their pretensions. Similarly, the silly verse they spout in "Pyramus and Thisby" satirizes bad acting but will probably leave you agreeing with Theseus that the actors' intentions are what matters.

The most eloquent and beautiful poetry in the play belongs to Oberon and Titania. Suddenly you feel the force of real poetry, not its false representatives. Shakespeare clearly aligns his poetry with magic, and Oberon's use of language seems to work like a magic spell. He names flowers with full recognition of their magical potentialities- including the power of the sound of their names.

"I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite overcanopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk roses, and with eglantine."

(II, ii, 249-52)

This famous passage is really just a list of flowers, but Shakespeare is able to infuse the naming with poetic magic, highlighting the rhythmic and sensual qualities of the language.

ELIZABETHAN ENGLISH

All languages change. Differences in pronunciation and word choice are apparent even between parents and their children. If language differences can appear in one generation, it is only to be expected that the English used by Shakespeare four hundred years ago will differ markedly from the English used today. The following information on Shakespeare's language will help a modern reader to a fuller understanding of A Midsummer Night's Dream.

MOBILITY OF WORD CLASSES

Adjectives, nouns, and verbs were less rigidly confined to particular classes in Shakespeare's day. Adjectives could be used as adverbs:

And then the moon, like to a silver bow
New bent in heaven

(I, i, 9-10)

"New" is used for "newly." Adjectives could also be used as nouns:

Demetrius loves your fair. O happy fair!

(I, i, 182)

Here, "fair" is the equivalent of "fairness" or "beauty." Adjectives could also be used as verbs. "Coy" means "to caress" in

While I thy amiable cheeks do coy,

(IV, i, 2)

Nouns could be used as verbs. "Square" means "to fight, quarrel" in

But they do square,

(II, i, 30)

Nouns could also be used as verbals, like "flews" (dog's jowls) and "sand" (the color of sand) in

My hounds are bred out of the Spartan kind;
So flewed, so sanded;

(IV, i, 118-19)

CHANGES IN WORD MEANING

The meanings of words undergo changes, a process that can be illustrated by the fact that "silly" used to mean "holy" and "quick" meant "alive." Most of the words in Shakespeare's plays still exist today but some meanings have changed. The change may be small, as in the case of "pert," which meant "quick to act," as in

Awake the pert and nimble spirit of mirth

(I, i, 13)

or more fundamental, so that "gossip" (II, i, 47) meant "old woman" (possibly a relative), "saddest" (II, i, 51) meant "most serious," "waxen" (II, i, 56) meant "increase," "weed" (II, i, 256) meant "garment, clothes," and "favours" (IV, i, 48) meant "flowers given as a token of love."

VOCABULARY LOSS

Words not only change their meanings but are frequently discarded from the language. In the past, "leman" meant "sweetheart," "sooth" meant "truth," and "mewed" meant "confined, cooped up." The following words used in A Midsummer Night's Dream are no longer current in English, but their meanings can usually be gauged from the contexts in which they occur.

GAUDS (I, i, 33)
showy toys

PREVAILMENT (I, i, 71)
power

BELIKE (I, i, 130)
perhaps

BETEEM (I, i, 131)
allow

MISGRAFFED (I, i, 137)
badly matched

COLLIED (I, i, 145)
darkened

EYNE (I, i, 242)
eyes

AN (I, ii, 47)
if

ORBS (II, i, 9)
fairy rings

LOB (II, i, 16)
fool, clown

FELL (II, i, 20)
fierce

BOOTLESS (II, i, 37)
useless

BUSKINED (II, i, 71)
wearing hunting clothes

MARGENT (II, i, 85)
shore

MURRION (II, i, 97)
murrain, disease of animals

HIEMS (II, i, 109)
winter

REREMICE (II, ii, 4)
bats

PARD (II, ii, 37)
leopard

OWE (II, ii, 85)
own

BY'R LAKIN (III, i, 12)
by our lady

OUSEL or WOOSEL (III, i, 118)
blackbird

THROSTLE (III, i, 120)
thrush

PATCHES (III, ii, 9)
clowns

ABY (III, ii, 175)
atone, pay for

WELKIN (III, ii, 356)
heavens, sky

WOT (III, ii, 422)
know

NEAF (IV, i, 19)
fist

CRY (IV, i, 123)
pack of hounds

DOLE (V, i, 270)
source of sorrow

VERBS

Shakespearean verb forms differ from modern usage in three main ways:

  1. Questions and negatives could be formed without using "do/did," as when Oberon asks Titania:

    How long within this wood intend you stay?

    (II, i, 138)

    where today we would say, "How long do you intend to stay?" or as when Demetrius tells Helen:

    I love thee not, therefore pursue me not.

    (II, i, 189)

    where modern usage demands, "I do not love you, so don't follow me."

    Shakespeare had the option of using forms (a) or (b), whereas contemporary usage permits only the (a) forms:

             a                   b  
     What are you saying?   What say you? 
     What did you say?      What said you?  
     I do not love you.     I love you not. 
     I did not love you.    I loved you not. 
    

  2. A number of past participles and past tense forms are used that would be ungrammatical today. Among these are "broke" for "broken":

    By all the vows that ever men have broke,

    (I, i, 175)

    "forgot" for "forgotten":

    And- to speak truth- I have forgot our way.

    (II, ii, 42)

    "afeard" for "afraid":

    Will not the ladies be afeard of the lion?

    (III, i, 25)

    "mistook" for "mistaken":

    And the youth mistook by me,

    (III, ii, 112)

    and "writ" for "wrote":

    Marry, if he that writ it had played
    Pyramus...

    (V, i, 348)

  3. Archaic verb forms sometimes occur with "thou" and with third person subjects:

    Thou shalt remain here, whether thou wilt or no.

    (III, i, 144)

    Music, ho! Music such as charmeth sleep!

    (IV, 1, 82)

    And all their minds transfigured so together,
    More witnesseth than fancy's images,

    (V, i, 24-25)

PRONOUNS

Shakespeare and his contemporaries had one extra pronoun, "thou," which could be used in addressing a person who was one's equal or social inferior. "You" was obligatory if more than one person was addressed, so "you" is used when Puck addresses the audience:

Think but this, and all is mended:
That you have but slumbered here,

(V, i, 414-15)

but it could also be used to indicate respect. Lysander and Hermia show their respect for each other by using "you":

LYS. Fair love, you faint with wandering in the wood;

.......

HER. Be it so, Lysander; find you out a bed,
For I upon this bank will rest my head.

(II, ii, 41ff)

Frequently, a person in power used "thou" to a child or a subordinate but was addressed "you" in return, as when Oberon speaks to Puck:

OBE. And look thou meet me ere the first cock crow.

PUCK Fear not, my lord, your servant shall do so.

(II, i, 267-68)

but if "thou" was used inappropriately it could cause grave offense. Oberon intended to offend Titania when he addressed her as "thou":

How canst thou thus, for shame, Titania,

(II, i, 74)

PREPOSITIONS

Prepositions were less standardized in Elizabethan English than they are today and so we find several uses in A Midsummer Night's Dream that would have to be modified in contemporary speech. Among these are

"in" for "on":

Or in the beached margent of the sea,

(II, i, 85)

"upon" for "by":

To die upon the hand I love so well.

(II, i, 244)

"on" for "of":

More fond on her than she upon her love:

(II, i, 266)

"against" for "in anticipation of":

And now have toiled their unbreathed memories
With this same play against your nuptial.

(V, i, 74-75)

and "to" for "in":

In least speak most, to my capacity.

(V, i, 105)

MULTIPLE NEGATION

Contemporary English requires only one negative per statement and regards such utterances as "I haven't none" as nonstandard. However, Shakespeare often used two or more negatives for emphasis, as when Helena chides Lysander:

Is't not enough, is't not enough, young man,
That I did never- no, nor never can
Deserve a sweet look from Demetrius' eye,

(II, ii, 131ff)

and Bottom agrees with Titania:

Not so neither;

(III, i, 141)

POINT OF VIEW

Though a playwright does not generally have an all-seeing or subjective voice to speak from, he does have characters to represent various points of view. But can you always tell what Shakespeare himself feels about things in A Midsummer Night's Dream? Do his characters speak for him? Or do you feel that he sometimes disappears behind his characters, making the reader decide what to feel about the issues?

Theseus is the voice for reason, for civil order and the mature subjugation of romantic passion in marriage. The four lovers, on the other hand, speak out for romance. Since their interactions are the basis of the comedy, and since they are all married in the end, they too make us feel the frivolity of romance. But Oberon, Titania, and Puck keep things from getting too structured or domestic. In them we feel authentic wild powers, a force of nature (we might call it magic) that need not be tamed. This natural force is also aligned with art. These different forces keep us from settling too easily into judgments about love and reason.

By presenting us with two distinct worlds- the courtly domain of order and the wild woods- Shakespeare also shows us the necessity for a balance between the two. Neither one will suffice alone. Theseus seems too constricted by reason, the lovers too driven and distracted by emotion. You may feel sympathetic with all the different characters and levels of experience of the play. Shakespeare's architecture seems to insist that all together are necessary for a rounded view of our world.

FORM AND STRUCTURE

Though Shakespeare's plays are now divided for us into acts and scenes, these are very likely the work of later editors. We do not really know where Shakespeare's players made their pauses. The Elizabethan stage was so bare and fluid that it wasn't necessary to stop frequently for scene or costume changes, as it is today. It's more interesting to look at the play itself to get a sense of form and structure.

THE FIVE-ACT STRUCTURE

    ACT I: EXPOSITION. The problem with the four lovers is revealed. They each seem to be in love with the wrong person.

    ACT II: RISING ACTION. The quarrel between Oberon and Titania intensifies. Lysander is given the love juice.

    ACT III: CLIMAX. Oberon's plan works: Bottom is transformed and Titania humiliated. The lovers are in complete disarray.

    ACT IV: FALLING ACTION. The lovers, Titania, and Bottom wake up from their "dreams." Oberon and Titania are reconciled.

    ACT V: RESOLUTION. The three couples prepare for marriage, and the play within the play is performed, exorcising the tragic element in favor of the comic.

The play has a very simple time architecture. Most of the action takes place during one long frantic night, framed at either end by a brief spate of day. And time parallels place. The play opens at court, in the sunny, rational, social world of Theseus the duke. The main course of the play takes place in the Athenian woods outside of town. There it is night- a mysterious world filled with spirits and human passions. At the end we are in court again. Day has returned, the order of marriage is triumphant, and the bonds of the social world are re-strengthened.

You might also find structural beauty in the way Shakespeare juggles the four realms his characters inhabit. By the way they speak and the kinds of characters they reveal, the people in the play seem to occupy distinct realms or zones of existence, which Shakespeare interweaves throughout the play. Theseus and Hippolyta, as members of the royal court, live in an extremely social world and stand for the orderly workings of society. The four lovers, in their travels from court to wood and back to court again, exist in a realm governed by the passions, and so come to stand for man's volatile emotional life. The rustic workingmen, with their simple trades, physical comedy, and earthy sensibilities, represent the material world. And the fairies- delicate, mysterious, elemental, with creative power and poetic art- represent the world of the spirit. All these worlds exist simultaneously. Shakespeare means us to see that the structure they combine to create is the human universe.

SOURCES

As with most of his plays, Shakespeare drew on many different sources to help shape A Midsummer Night's Dream. There does not seem to be an earlier plot that he incorporated- rather, a series of myths and tales that he drew from to create his own work. But most of our understanding of Shakespearean sources is like detective work: we piece together similarities but we have no direct testimony.

Sir Thomas North's translation of Plutarch's Life of Theseus seems to have given Shakespeare some of the mythical background for the play, particularly relating to Theseus's past exploits, romantic and otherwise. The name Egeus (Hermia's father) probably also came from Plutarch.

Shakespeare seems almost certain to have borrowed some information from the fourteenth-century poet Geoffrey Chaucer, whose "Knight's Tale," in the Canterbury Tales, opens with lines about Theseus and Hippolyta. It also mentions observances of May Day.

Similarly, Ovid's Metamorphosis, translated by Arthur Golding, gave Shakespeare a very clear working of the story of Pyramus and Thisby. This is probably where Shakespeare picked up his word "cranny," through which the unfortunate lovers are forced to speak.

And it is also likely that Shakespeare knew of the Roman writer Apuleius's story The Golden Ass. In it a poor man is transformed by enchantment into an ass. In the description of the transformation, there are many similar phrases that tie the two together.

For his fairies, Shakespeare had a vast store of folklore to draw on. Robin Goodfellow was particularly well-known in country lore, though Shakespeare may have been the first to give him the name of Puck. May Day (May 1) and Midsummer's Night (June 23/summer solstice) were two festivals important as background for the play. May Day (when A Midsummer Night's Dream actually takes place) was a favorite festival for rural England, a time in which the people left the city and headed for the woods, where they danced and celebrated. A king and queen of May were elected, and this "royal" couple went to the nobles' houses to give their blessings, much the way Oberon and Titania do at the end of the play. May Day was, above all, a time of lovers' madness: they, too, went to the woods and frequently spent the night there. Midsummer was a general celebration of madness and merriment, a time when magic was afoot and the fairies were particularly evident. Costumes and dancing played a large part in the festivities. "Midsummer madness," brought about by the heat, affected everyone, opening the way for illusion (and delusion) to transform reality.

Shakespeare even drew on some of his own work. The situation of the workmen awkwardly performing their amateur theatricals is similar to the show of the Nine Worthies in Love's Labour's Lost. In Two Gentlemen of Verona, the way that couples mix up and transfer their affections is reminiscent of the Midsummer lovers. And if Romeo and Juliet was, as is often suggested, written directly before A Midsummer Night's Dream, it offers an entrance into the fairy world with Mercutio's famous description of Queen Mab.

THE GLOBE THEATRE

One of the most famous theaters of all time is the Globe Theatre. It was one of several Shakespeare worked in during his career, and many of the greatest plays of English literature were performed there. Built in 1599 for L600 just across the River Thames from London, it burned down in 1613 when a spark from one of the cannons in a battle scene in Shakespeare's Henry VIII set fire to the thatched roof. The theater was quickly rebuilt and survived until 1644. No one knows exactly what the Globe looked like but some scholarly detective work has given us a fairly good idea. The Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., has a full scale re-creation of the Globe.

When it was built, the Globe was the latest thing in theater design. It was a three-story octagon, with covered galleries surrounding an open yard some 50 feet across. Three sides of the octagon were devoted to the stage and backstage areas. The main stage was a raised platform that jutted into the center of the yard, or pit. Behind the stage was the tiring house- the backstage area where the actors dressed and waited for their cues. This area was flanked by two doors and contained an inner stage, with a curtain that was used when the script called for a scene to be discovered. (Some scholars think the inner stage was actually a tent or pavilion that could be moved about the stage.) Above the inner stage was the upper stage, a curtained balcony that could serve as the battlements in Hamlet or for the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet. Most of the action of the play took place on the main and upper stages.

The third story held the musicians' gallery and machinery for sound effects and pyrotechnics. Above all was a turret from which a flag was flown to announce, "Performance today." A roof (the shadow) covered much of the stage and not only protected the players from sudden showers but also contained machinery needed for special effects. More machinery was under the stage, where several trapdoors permitted the sudden appearance in a play of ghosts and allowed actors to leap into rivers or graves, as the script required.

For a penny (a day's wages for an apprentice), you could stand with the "groundlings" in the yard to watch the play; another penny would buy you a seat in the upper galleries, and a third would get you a cushioned seat in the lower gallery- the best seats in the house. The audience would be a mixed crowd- sedate scholars, gallant courtiers, and respectable merchants and their families in the galleries; rowdy apprentices and young men looking for excitement in the yard; and pickpockets and prostitutes taking advantage of the crowds to ply their trades. And crowds there would be- the Globe could probably hold 2000 to 3000 people, and even an ordinary performance would attract a crowd of 1200.

The play would be performed in broad daylight during the warmer months. In colder weather, Shakespeare's troupe appeared indoors at Court or in one of London's private theaters. There was no scenery as we know it, but there are indications that the Elizabethans used simple set pieces such as trees, bowers, or battle tents to indicate location. Any props needed were readied in the tiring house by the book keeper (we'd call him the stage manager) and carried on and off by actors. If time or location were important, the characters usually said something about it. Trumpet flourishes told the audience an important character was about to enter, rather like a modern spotlight, and a scene ended when all the characters left the stage. (Bodies of dead characters were carried off stage.) Little attention was paid to historical accuracy in plays such as Julius Caesar or Macbeth, and actors wore contemporary clothing. One major difference from the modern theater was that all female parts were played by young boys, Elizabethan custom did not permit women to act.

If the scenery was minimal, the performance made up for it in costumes and spectacle. English actors were famous throughout Europe for their skill as dancers, and some performances ended with a dance (or jig). Blood, in the form of animal blood or red paint, was lavished about in the tragedies; ghosts made sudden appearances amidst swirling fog; thunder was simulated by rolling a cannon ball along the wooden floor of the turret or by rattling a metal sheet. The costumes were gorgeous- and expensive! One "robe of estate" alone cost L19, a year's wages for a skilled workman of the time. But the costumes were a large part of the spectacle that the audience came to see, and they had to look impressive in broad daylight, with the audience right up close.

You've learned some of the conventions of the Globe Theatre, a theater much simpler than many of ours but nevertheless offering Shakespeare a wide range of possibilities for staging his plays. Now let's see how specific parts of A Midsummer Night's Dream might have been presented at the Globe.

A Midsummer Night's Dream is unusual in that it takes almost no advantage of the multiple stages available to Shakespeare at the Globe. This may well be because the play was originally written to be performed privately as part of the celebrations of a particular wedding, and moved to the public theater later. Almost all the action takes place in the woods near Athens, and all of it could be performed on the main stage. The setting is, however, one of the most popular for Elizabethan plays- a woods. There may have been some standard props brought in to suggest a forest scene, or the actors may just have treated the pillars as if they were trees.

You can see how the absence of scenery and lighting affects the play, though. The characters are constantly mentioning that now it is nighttime and that they are in the woods. If they didn't say so, how could the audience know? (In this play, nighttime is particularly important for many of the scenes, because that is when the fairies are in charge.)

The ending of the play is also typically Elizabethan. Since there was no curtain to fall, there were different conventions: tragedies frequently ended with a funeral march and bodies being carried off the stage, while comedies ended the way A Midsummer Night's Dream does, with music and a dance.

THE STORY

THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES


ECC [A Midsummer Night's Dream Contents] [PinkMonkey.com]

© Copyright 1985 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc.
Electronically Enhanced Text © Copyright 1993, World Library, Inc.
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