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A Midsummer Night's Dream
William Shakespeare


REFERENCE

THE CRITICS

THE PLAY

"A Midsummer Night's Dream" shines like "Romeo and Juliet" in darkness, but shines merrily. Lysander, one of the two nonentities who are its heroes, complains at the beginning about the brevity of love's course...:

So quick bright things come to confusion.

This, however, is at the beginning. Bright things will come to clarity in a playful, sparkling night while fountains gush and spangled starlight betrays the presence in a wood near Athens of magic persons who can girdle the earth in forty minutes and bring any cure for human woe. Nor will the woe to be cured have any power to elicit our anxiety.... There will be no pretense that reason and love keep company, or that because they do not death lurks at the horizon.

Mark Van Doren, Shakespeare, 1939

CHARACTERIZATION

In A Midsummer Night's Dream, then, Shakespeare defines his characters according to what they represent, according to their labels. The lovers are not individuals, they are "lovers," and the definition of that word will determine their behaviour; Puck's actions too are predicated by the definition of "Puck." Nor is the process restricted to characters; even places stand for something, are labels. Athens, established in literary tradition as the legendary seat of reason (in Boccaccio's Teseida and "The Knight's Tale") is here almost a byword for rational order. The wilderness outside Athens is called a "wood" and not a forest, as is the corresponding locale in As You Like It, because it must also be a label for "mad," and in case we miss the point, Demetrius is made to pun on "wood" (for "mad" and "forest") and "wooed"; "And here am I, and wood within this wood...." With everything so clearly defined and with the infinite complexities of realistic character and "real life" settings so firmly excised, no wonder those who came looking for realism go away convinced that the play is a little too simple.

Stephen Fender, Shakespeare: A Midsummer Night's Dream, 1968

THE END OF THE PLAY

If ever the son of man in his wanderings was at home and drinking by the fireside, he is at home in the house of Theseus. All the dreams have been forgotten, as a melancholy dream remembered throughout the morning might be forgotten in the human certainty of any other triumphant evening party; and so the play seems naturally ended. It began on the earth and it ends on the earth. Thus to round off the whole midsummer night's dream in an eclipse of daylight is an effect of genius. But of this comedy, as I have said, the mark is that genius goes beyond itself; and one touch is added which makes the play colossal. Theseus and his train retire with a crashing finale, full of humour and wisdom and things set right, and silence falls on the house. Then there comes a faint sound of little feet, and for a moment, as it were, the elves look into the house, asking which is the reality. "Suppose we are the realities and they the shadows." If that ending were acted properly any modern man would feel shaken to his marrow if he had to walk home from the theatre through a country lane.

G. K. Chesterton, Chesterton On Shakespeare, 1971

SHAKESPEARE'S POETIC SPEECHES

No, his heart was in these passages of verse, and so the heart of the play is in them. And the secret of the play- the refutation of all doctrinaire criticism of it- lies in the fact that though they may offend against every letter of dramatic law they fulfil the inmost spirit of it, inasmuch as they are dramatic in themselves. They are instinct with that excitement, that spontaneity, that sense of emotional overflow which is drama. They are as carefully constructed for effective speaking as a messenger's speech in a Greek drama. One passage in particular, Puck's "My mistress with a monster is in love," is both in idea and form, in its tension, climax, and rounding off, a true messenger's speech. Shakespeare, I say, was from the first a playwright in spite of himself. Even when he seems to sacrifice drama to poem he- instinctively or not- manages to make the poem itself more dramatic than the drama he sacrifices.

Harley Granville-Barker, More Prefaces to Shakespeare, 1974

BOTTOM'S "VISION"

By contrast "vision," as it is introduced into the play, is a code word for the dream understood, the dream correctly valued. Often the user does not know that he knows; this is another of the play's thematic patterns, supporting the elevation of the irrational above the merely rational. As a device it is related to a character type always present in Shakespeare, but more highly refined in the later plays, that of the wise fool. Thus Bottom, awakening, is immediately and intuitively impressed with the significance of his "dream," which we of course recognize as not a dream at all, but rather a literal reality within the play.

Marjorie B. Garber, Dream In Shakespeare, 1974

THE FAIRIES

What is true of the moon applies to the fairies. They are a curious mixture of wood spirits and household gods, pagan deities and local pixies. They inhabit the environs of Athens and follow the fortunes of Theseus and Hippolyta, but they are clearly the spirits whom we can consider "almost essential to a Midsummer Play," detectably English in character and habit. Through Titania and her train, Shakespeare emphasizes their innocence and delicacy; in Oberon and Puck, he expresses their darker side, potentially malevolent in the lore of the time.

David P. Young, Something of Great Constancy: The Art of A Midsummer Night's Dream, 1966

THE COMEDY OF LANGUAGE

The Dream's comedy of language attains its peak of extravagance in "Pyramus." One favourite effect is continued from the play proper: the misassignment of sense-experience- Pyramus sees a voice, hopes to hear his Thisby's face, and bids his tongue lose its light. In the rehearsal-scene he is supposed to have gone "but to see a noise that he heard," and the effect has been taken to its highest point in Bottom's garbling of St. Paul: "The eye of man hath not heard...." That parody would not have been possible in anything but comic prose; and prose, as is normal in Shakespeare, is the vehicle for the scenes of plebeian comedy. Bottom's adherence to it in fairyland, while Titania speaks verse, adds to the characterization and the comic effect, emphasizing how unshakeably he remains himself, and how out of touch, inhabiting still their disparate worlds, they are with each other.

Harold F. Brooks, Introduction to Arden, A Midsummer Night's Dream, 1979

[A Midsummer Night's Dream Contents]


ADVISORY BOARD

We wish to thank the following educators who helped us focus our Book Notes series to meet student needs and critiqued our manuscripts to provide quality materials.

Sandra Dunn, English Teacher
Hempstead High School, Hempstead, New York

Lawrence J. Epstein, Associate Professor of English
Suffolk County Community College, Selden, New York

Leonard Gardner, Lecturer, English Department
State University of New York at Stony Brook

Beverly A. Haley, Member, Advisory Committee
National Council of Teachers of English Student Guide Series
Fort Morgan, Colorado

Elaine C. Johnson, English Teacher
Tamalpais Union High School District
Mill Valley, California

Marvin J. LaHood, Professor of English
State University of New York College at Buffalo

Robert Lecker, Associate Professor of English
McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada

David E. Manly, Professor of Educational Studies
State University of New York College at Geneseo

Bruce Miller, Associate Professor of Education
State University of New York at Buffalo

Frank O'Hare, Professor of English and Director of Writing
Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio

Faith Z. Schullstrom, Member of Executive Committee
National Council of Teachers of English
Director of Curriculum and Instruction
Guilderland Central School District, New York

Mattie C. Williams, Director, Bureau of Language Arts
Chicago Public Schools, Chicago, Illinois

[A Midsummer Night's Dream Contents]


BIBLIOGRAPHY

FURTHER READING
CRITICAL WORKS

Arthos, John. Shakespeare's Use of Dream and Vision. Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1977.

Chesterton, G. K. Chesterton on Shakespeare. Chester Springs, Pa.: Dufour Editions, 1971. Readable essays with a very English sensibility.

Chute, Marchette. Shakespeare of London. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1949. A biography that reads like a novel.

Coleridge, S. T. Shakespearean Criticism. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1960. A great poet's grasp of Shakespeare's music.

Fender, Stephen. Shakespeare: A Midsummer Night's Dream. London: Edward Arnold, 1968.

Garber, Marjorie B. Dream in Shakespeare. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1974. A penetrating look at Shakespeare's visionary world, including a psychological analysis of dreams.

Granville-Barker, Harley. More Prefaces to Shakespeare. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1974. Insightful essays by a great Shakespearean director.

Kermode, Frank. Shakespeare, Spenser, Donne. New York: Viking Press, 1971. An essay that includes the occult philosophical tradition behind Shakespeare's magic.

Lerner, Lawrence, ed. Shakespeare's Comedies: An Anthology of Modern Criticism. Baltimore, Md.: Penguin Books, 1978.

Nagler, Alois M. Shakespeare's Stage. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981. The classic introduction to the Elizabethan stage.

Parott, Thomas Marc. William Shakespeare: A Handbook. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1955.

Shakespeare, William. A Midsummer Night's Dream. Edited by Harold F. Brooks. The Arden Shakespeare. London: Methuen, 1979. Fully annotated, with extensive introductory notes.

Van Doren, Mark. Shakespeare. New York: Henry Holt, 1939.

Young, David P. Something of Great Constancy: The Art of a Midsummer Night's Dream. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966.

AUTHOR'S WORKS

Shakespeare wrote 37 plays (38 if you include The Two Noble Kinsmen) over a 20-year period, from about 1590 to 1610. It's difficult to determine the exact dates when many were written, but scholars have made the following intelligent guesses about his plays and poems:

PLAYS

    1588-93 The Comedy of Errors
    1588-94 Love's Labour's Lost
    1590-91 2 Henry VI
    1590-91 3 Henry VI
    1591-92 1 Henry VI
    1592-93 Richard III
    1592-94 Titus Andronicus
    1593-94 The Taming of the Shrew
    1593-95 The Two Gentlemen of Verona
    1594-96 Romeo and Juliet
    1595 Richard II
    1594-96 A Midsummer Night's Dream
    1596-97 King John
    1596-97 The Merchant of Venice
    1597 1 Henry IV
    1597-98 2 Henry IV
    1598-1600 Much Ado About Nothing
    1598-99 Henry V
    1599 Julius Caesar
    1599-1600 As You Like It
    1599-1600 Twelfth Night
    1600-01 Hamlet
    1597-1601 The Merry Wives of Windsor
    1601-02 Troilus and Cressida
    1602-04 All's Well That Ends Well
    1603-04 Othello
    1604 Measure for Measure
    1605-06 King Lear
    1605-06 Macbeth
    1606-07 Antony and Cleopatra
    1605-08 Timon of Athens
    1607-09 Coriolanus
    1608-09 Pericles
    1609-10 Cymbeline
    1610-11 The Winter's Tale
    1611-12 The Tempest
    1612-13 Henry VIII

POEMS

    1592 Venus and Adonis
    1593-94 The Rape of Lucrece
    1593-1600 Sonnets
    1600-01 The Phoenix and the Turtle

[Shakespeare's Sonnets read by John Gielgud]

A STEP BEYOND


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