Research Notes on ‘Dream’

A Note on the Text

There are three early printed versions ofA Midsummer Night ‘c Dream – two quartos and the First Folio text. The First Quarto (Qi) was published by Thomas Fisher in 1600. The title page of the Second Quarto (Q2) says it was printed in 1600 by James Roberts, but in fact it was printed in 1619 by William Jaggard, who later printed the collected edition of Shakespeare’s work, the First Folio of 1623, in which the third text of the play appears. Qi seems to have been typeset from Shakespeare’s ‘foul paper’ copy – that is, from the original script before it was revised into a final ‘fair copy’ draft and given to the company’s prompter to annotate and copy into the prompt¬book for use in the theatre. Printing from ‘foul papers’ sounds like a dubious project. In this case, however, foul papers are less foul than the term implies, because instead of transcribing and polishing them into a fair copy, as most playwrights did, Shakespeare habitually made corrections on them. Thus a text printed from these foul papers, as Qi was, is actually quite reliable. Even so, there are a number of unmarked exits and, more important, entrances, as well as some inconsistencies in speech tags, especially regarding Puck, who is sometimes ‘Puck’ and sometimes ‘Robin’ or ‘Rob’ – the kinds of confusions to be expected in a text printed from the author’s papers.

With the exception of five leaves, Q2 merely reprints Qi (with additional stage directions based presumably on the prompt-book copy). And since the First Folio text reprints Q2 (adding still further stage directions but also further errors), editors usually regard QI as the most authoritative of the three. (It is the basis for the text I have used, edited by David Bevington and appearing in The Complete Works of Shakespeare, 3rd edition (1980).) I should add, however, that there is one significant difference between Qi and the Folio. In the former, Hermia’s father, Egeus, does not appear in the final scene; in the latter, he not only appears but is given lines assigned to Philostrate in Qi. As critics have recently noted (Hodgdon 1986; McGuire 1989), whether Egeus is present or absent here crucially affects an interpretation of the play, his absence in Qi implying his refusal to acknowledge Hermia’s wedding and his alienation from Athenian society, his presence in the Folio leaving room for various inferences ranging from an Egeus fully acceptant of the marriage to one too embittered even to speak to his daughter.


As with most of Shakespeare’s plays, determining just when A Midsummer Night’s Dream was written and first performed is something of an exercise in divination. For one thing, because ‘writing’ cannot be limited to the time when words are actually put down on paper, the date of any text is impossible to establish precisely. But even in the familiar sense of the word, the writing ofAMidsummerNight’s Dream is hard to date. Although the text of the play was not entered on the Stationer’s Register – the official record of London booksellers and printers – until 8 October 1600, it’s generally agreed that Shakespeare wrote the play and his company the Chamber¬lain’s Men, staged it sometime between 1594 and 1596. A date earlier than 7 September 1598 is dictated by the registration on that day of Francis Meres’ Palladis Tamia, Wit Treasury, in whichA MidsummerNight’s Dream is listed as one of twelve plays by Shakespeare worthy of comparison to the classics; and a date later than 30 August 1594 is suggested in part because of the relevance to the play of the baptismal feast held on that day for Prince Henry, son of King James IV of Scotland (later James I of England). An account of the feast published in A True Reportarie in October 1594 mentions a chariot drawn into the presence of KingJames by a Moor:

This chariot should have been drawne in by a lyon, but because his presence might have brought some feare to the nearest, or that the sights of the lights and the torches might have commoved his tameness, it was thought meete than the Moor should supply that room. (Brooks 1979: xxdv)

Bringing a lion into a baptismal feast in Scotland evidently generated as much anxiety as bringing one ‘among the ladies’ during a performance of Pyramus and Thisbe in Athens. Of course the mere fact that a lion is called for in the plot of Pyramus and Thisbe may have been sufficient to inspire Shakespeare’s foolery about the trials of theatrical realism, but, as Harold F. Brooks argues, knowing about the Scottish lion incident (if indeed he did) may well have contributed to his inspiration (Brooks 1979: uxv; however, see Franke 1979: 285). If so, then the date of the play would be between mid-1594 and mid-1598. This period can be narrowed to 1595 or 1596 if, as is often assumed, the play were originally designed as entertainment for an aristocratic wedding (cf. Olson 1957; Siegel 1953). The leading candidates for this occasion are the wedding of William Stanley, Earl of Derby, to Elizabeth Vere, daughter of the Earl of Oxford, on 26January 1595; that of Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, to Lady Dorothea Devereux, younger sister of the Earl of Essex, on 1 May 1595; and that of Thomas Berkeley and Elizabeth Carey on 19 February 1596. The last seems highly plausible in view of the fact that the bride was the granddaughter of Henry Carey, 1st Lord Hunsdon, who from 1585 had held the powerful post of Queen’s Lord Chamberlain and from 1594 had been the patron of Shakespeare’s company (Savage 1961; May 1984). What more likely than that the Lord Chamberlain’s Men should be asked to provide a play to celebrate the wedding of the Lord Chamberlain’s granddaughter?

On the other hand, John Draper (1972) makes a persuasive argument in favour of the Percy—Devereux wedding based on the theory that the right wedding would take place on I May in keeping with Theseus’ remark on discovering the sleeping lovers, ‘No doubt they rose up early to observe / The rite of May’ (iv.i.131-2). Draper had earlier settled on 1 May 1595 as the likeliest date for the play’s first performance, since that was the time when the new moon appeared in the sky along with Venus as the morning star (to which Oberon refers twice and Puck once (m.ii.61, 107, 380)). Professor Draper puts Peter Quince in nearly total eclipse as a coordinator of calendars and celestial events:

A computation based on the transit of Venus across the sun on December 7, 1631 N.S. [New Style, i.e., by the Gregorian calendar], shows that the planet was in superior conjunction on March 1, 1595, and remained west of the sun until inferior conjunction on December 18. Its greatest western elongation – i.e., its greatest angular distance from the sun and therefore greatest prominence in the sky – was May 12 N.S., which would be May 2 according to the Julian calendar then used in England. Thus in 1595, it was a bright and very obvious morning star from the latter part of April into June; and further computation shows that this is the only year between 1592 and 1598 in which Venus was clearly visible at this season as a morning star [Draper 1938:267]. . . . all these dates agree in showing an astronomical new moon on April 29, 1595 O.S.; and the thin crescent might be dimly visible on the following evening and more clearly on May first. On the years immediately preceding and following, moreover, no new moon fell near to May Day (Draper 1972: 268).

Hence the possibility that the Percy—Devereux wedding on 1 May 1595 was the occasion for which Shakespeare first wrote his play (Draper 1972; see alsoJ. N. Brown 1980).
Not, whatever the case, that Shakespeare wrote A Midsummer Night’s Dream to be performed on only one private occasion. Not even he could afford to be that prodigal with his scripts, and certainly no commercial acting company would have wanted him to be. Thus although the play is perfectly suited for private performance in a mansion before a noble wedding party, nothing in it is incompatible, assuming certain modifica¬tions, with an appearance on the public stage, which is no doubt where Francis Meres saw it sometime between 1596 and 1598.


The plot of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is Shakespeare’s own invention, but its components derive from several sources. Thomas North’s trans¬lation (1579) of Amyot’s French translation (1559) of Plutarch’s Lives ofthe Noble Grecians and Romans provided him with the ‘courtship’ and wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta. Their transformation into ‘Duke’ Theseus and Queen Hippolyta derives from Shakespeare’s reading of Chaucer’s The Knight’s Tale – ‘Ther was a duc that highte Theseus’. There was also a Chaucerian wood, highte wood, into which on a May morning Duc Theseus rides to hunt deer ‘With hunte and horn and houndes hym beside’ (Knight’s Tale, 1673-8), very much like the wood Theseus enters, apparently on 1 May, to the sound of the hunting horn and the harmonious baying of hounds. Again, in both texts two almost indistinguishable young men are rivals for the hand of a young woman. The resolution of this rivalry in The Knight’s Tale, which features a trial by combat governed by Saturn, is comically paralleled mA Midsummer Night’s Dream, where the woodsy trial by combat of Lysander and Demetrius is benevolently aborted by Puck and Oberon in the interests of love (Champion 1970: 47-59; Brooks 1979: lxxvii—lxxx; Thompson 1978; Donaldson 1985: 30-49; Mowat 1989:338-41).

Of course Shakespeare complicates and squares off the love relation¬ships by adding a second woman in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as he had done previously in A Comedy of Errors and Two Gentlemen of Verona. The latter play (and Montemayor’s Diana, on which it is based) also includes the kind of cross-courtship and recovery that occurs in A Midsummer Night’s Dream when one of the young men shifts his attentions to the other’s lady love and then comes to his senses. A nearer but less influential source may have been John Lyly’s play Gallathea (1584-8), which also features lovers and a choice between virgin death and flight into a forest visited by quarrelling deities and apprentice artisans. In the forest confusion abounds, helped along by a mischievous spirit, and a transformation of one of the lovers by the gods precipitates a happy return to the outside world and everyone’s participation in a wedding feast (Scragg 1982).
Shakespeare’s assification of Bottom was probably inspired by Apuleius’ The Golden Ass, which because of its abstruse Latin he probably read in the translation of William Adlington in 1566 (Tobin 1984). It relates the adventures of a young man transformed into an ass, and one chapter in particular recounts how a high-bred lady, albeit not a fairy queen, fell in love with the bestial hero and insisted on bedding him. Again, in The Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584) Reginald Scot scoffingly tells of a man supposed to have been bewitched into the shape of an ass and laments that St Augustine retailed and evidently believed similar stories of men converted into horses and the like. Bottom’s itchy ears may derive from the familiar story (told by Ovid among others) of how Apollo bestowed ass’s ears on the presumptuous King Midas for calling Pan a better musician than he. On the other hand, Shakespeare may have got the idea from observing that donkeys like to have their ears scratched.
Reginald Scot also mentions Puck or Robin Goodfellow, but dis¬missively, as one of a host of fantastic beasts, spirits and bogeymen employed by adults to frighten children but hardly to be credited by the informed. Puck may come from the folk imagination, but Oberon very likely comes, in name at least, from a French romance called Huon de Burdeux (translated by Lord Bemers around 1540), or perhaps from Spenser’s TheFaerieQueene, ii.i.8 (1590), or Greene’s play-James IV(1 591), in all of which he is a fairy king or elfin father. Titania’s name appears in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in reference to both Diana and Circe; and, as that would suggest, Shakespeare’s fairies may be to some extent a transforma¬tion of Ovid’s pagan gods and goddesses, as was the case in medieval romances like Sir Orfeo or in Chaucer’s Merchant’s Tale (Martindale and Martindale 1990: 72). The rest of the fairy lore probably comes from William and Mary Shakespeare, various aunts and uncles and local Warwickshire sages, and even perhaps from a few nocturnal boyish ventures into Arden Forest when, ‘imagining some fear’, how easy is the wind in the leaves supposed a flight of fairies.

The story of Pyramus and Thisbe Shakespeare took primarily from Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Book iv), though there were other versions of the tale in Chaucer’s The Legend of Good Women and various Elizabethan poems, most notably in Thomas Mouffet’s The Silkewormes and their Flies. The latter, a poem full of hilarious double entendres by a poet with an incorrigibly single entendre mind, may have caught Shakespeare’s eye as a wonderful source of parody (Muir 1954; but see Duncan-Jones 1981). Or, as E. Talbot Donaldson has argued (1985: 7-18), he may have taken some cues from Chaucer’s Tale of Sir Thopzs, itself a parody of the Middle English romance. As Sir Thopas mocks the worst features of romance, so the dramatic form and style in which Shakespeare casts his tale mock those of popular English plays of the 1570s and 1580s – ranting plays like Horestes and Cambises, ‘tragical comedies’ like Damon and Pythias and Appius and Virginia, and Heywood’s 1561 translation of Seneca’s Hercules Furens (Young 1966: 34-42). At the same time, the fears and foibles of Peter Quince’s company of players had a far nearer source in Shakespeare’s own theatrical experience coupled ‘with a playful imagination.

As for non-dramatic sources: the drift of the young lovers from Athens out to the wood and back again seems associated with the festive pattern of ‘going a-Maying’ in rural Elizabethan England (Barber 1959:3-35; Young 1966: 16-24). On the eve of May Day (1 May), but also at other times of the year – Midsummer’s Eve and Whitsuntide, for example (Viasopolos 1978) – villagers went into the forests to gather garlands and boughs and to bring back a maypole to dance around. These festivities are often held to derive from archaic fertility rituals. A related influence seems to have been the fond pageants, shows and tableaux presented at places like Kenilworth in 1575 and Elvetham in 1591 to entertain Queen Elizabeth during her progresses. For these, as forAMidsummerNight’s Dream, Ovid’s Metamorphoses furnished an abundance of chases through forests, battles with centaurs and especially occasions on which a Diana—Elizabeth figure could still the rude waters with an imperious glance, silence roaring beasts with a wave of her wand or glide about in ‘maiden meditation’ as Cupid’s darts flew everywhere but into her impenetrably chaste heart (ii.i. 148-74).

Such tricks hath Shakespeare’s strong imagination that all of these influences, literary and non-literary, come together like the lovers’ stories of the night and grow to something of remarkably great constancy. Or do they? How, in fact, should we interpret Shakespeare’s story of the night? If we look at the critical reception of the play, as I shall do in the following section, the answer to that question would seem to be ‘variously’.

Stage & Critical History

Introductions to a play usually include a section on its ‘stage history’ and another on its ‘critical history’. But this is a rather arbitrary division, inasmuch as each production is itself an act of criticism, expressed, to be sure, in the language of the theatre instead of the study. Theatrical language is, however, notoriously evanescent, and hence, to those ofus who were not present, what was said and done on stage is normally available only in the language of the study after all. One such study belonged to Samuel Pepys, a frequent playgoer, in whose diary the Shakespearian performances he witnessed shrivelled into laconic recordings of pleasure or, more often, of displeasure. All that remains of a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the King’s Theatre on the night of 29 September 1662, for instance, is the following entry, the earliest known criticism of the play:

[Went] to the King’s Theatre, where we saw Midsummers nights dreame, which I have never seen before, nor shall ever again, for it is the most insipid ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life. I saw, I confess, some good dancing and some handsome women, which was all my pleasure. (Pepys 1970: 208)

Actually, this is not the earliest known criticism of the play. That honour would fall to a performance at the court of KingJames on New Year’s night 1604, billed as A Play of Robin Goodfellow. If this was indeed A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the modified title indicates where the appeal of the play was thought to lie. If it was not Shakespeare’s play, then this is the first of several cannibalisations, the others being The Comedy of Pyramus and Thisbe (pre-1624) and an interregnum droll called The Meriy Conceits of Bottom the Weaver (1646). All of this extraction and independent performing of parts of A MidsummerNight ‘s Dream suggests that the antics of the fairies and the workmen were regarded as amusing but that audiences had difficulty grasping the play as a coherent whole.

But let me skip back to Pepys, whose distaste for the play may have been owing to the fact that stagings of it have so often taken their cue from the presence of fairies and presented it as a fairyland fantasia of song and dance. In 1692, for instance, Thomas Betterton transformed it with the aid of Purcell’s music into an opera called The Fairy Queen, first of a series of operatic and mock-operatic stagings throughout the eighteenth century. By 1816, when Hazlitt saw A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or at least something that went by that title, the play itself had disappeared beneath the cosmetic splendour of scenic and musical effects. ‘The spirit was evaporated’, he complained:

the genius was fled; but the spectacle was fine: it was that which saved the play. Oh, ye scene-shifters, ye scene-painters, ye machinists and dress-makers, ye manufacturers of moon and stars that give no light, ye musical composers, ye men in the orchestra, fiddlers and trumpeters and players on the double drum and loud bassoon, rejoice! This is your triumph; it is not ours. (Salgado 1975: 117).

This sounds suspiciously as though Hazlitt were addressing Peter Quince’s company of, if not ‘machinists’, mechanicals. For certainly the spirit and genius of their play, the ‘tedious brief scene of young Pyramus / And his love Thisby’, evaporates as the gimmickry of theatrical presenta¬tion condenses into a self-proclaiming Wall that blocks all vision and a talkative Moon that truly gives no light.

In Berlin a few years later, in 1827, the poet Ludwig Tieck continued the musical emphasis in a revival of the play for which Mendelssohn wrote his famous overture. Earlier, in 1755, David Garrick had subtracted the workmen and staged what he called The Fairies; and later, in 1911, Beerbohm Tree added live rabbits to the cast, along with other scenic marvels, to fashion an extravaganza that proved highly successful commer¬cially. In 1914, Harley Granville-Barker got ninety-nine performances out of a production that featured fairies with gilded faces and golden thigh-pieces, having either arisen from Atlantis or descended from Venus. Until the 1970s, productions of the play continued to oscillate between the poles of masque and ballet, occasionally prompting a somewhat ‘anti-poetic’ reaction, especially in the late 1950s and 1960s, in which the buffoonery of the mechanicals was given full comic scope (Stratford, Conn. 1958, 1960; New York Shakespeare Festival 1961).

After a long run as a lightsome affair of music and dance ending on a high note of happiness, the play began to take on a different aspect around the turn of the twentieth century. Its darker implications were cited as early as 1904 by G. K. Chesterton, who felt that the reappearance of the fairies at the end of the festivities should blur the audience’s sense of reality (Chesterton 1904: 14), and were intensified in 1932 by G. Wilson Knight, who claimed to see in the play ‘a gnomish, fearsome, Macbeth-like quality just touching nightmare’ (Knight 1932: 69). But the most influential argument along these lines has been that of the Polish criticJan Kott, who, taking a cue from illustrations featuring Bottom and Titania by the late eighteenth-century painter Henry Fuseli, finds brutality and eroticism beneath the veneer of romantic love. Thus Titania’s drug-induced in¬fatuation with Bottom becomes for Kott a rapacious but liberating desire for animal love, mirrored less obviously by the other lovers as they ‘enter the dark sphere of animal love-making’ (Kott 1964: 218).

Kon’s interpretation of the play directly influenced Peter Brook, whose 1970 Royal Shakespeare Company production did its best to break with all prior productions by featuring not only an ithyphallic Bottom in fairyland but also Oberon and Puck aloft on trapezes, rock musicians on catwalks, and lovers on ladders – a production almost as preoccupied with the machinery of staging as the one that caused Hazlitt to cry, ‘This is your triumph; it is not ours’ to the scene-shifters and extravaganza-makers of his day. Brook’s production served as a fulcrum in the shift towards a ‘director’s theatre’ that, depending on your perspective, either liberated the stage from the tyranny of the author and the text or arrogantly substituted the tyranny of the director for the authority of the author and did to the text what Brook all but depicted Bottom doing to Titania. Either way, since 1970, directors like Robin Phillips, John Barton, Ron Daniels and Elijah Moshinsky have demonstrated great ingenuity and considerable licence in translating the play into modern theatrical parlance.

Meanwhile, in the period roughly from the mid-century to 1980, criticism of the play took its cue from Hippolyta’s remark about the stories of the night growing to ‘something of great constancy’ (the title of David Young’s excellent study of 1966), and sought through a focus on imagery, theme and genre to resolve the play’s various ‘worlds’ into some kind of unity (e.g. Goddard 1951; Zimer 1960; Zimbardo 1972). Unity, however, is not easily come by in a play whose characters divide into fairies, lovers, mechanicals and royalty and whose action splits geographically between palace and wood and metaphysically between nature and supernature. Perhaps that is why critics, taking as a keynote the concordia discors of Theseus’ hounds at the end of Act 4, habitually characterise the play in terms of harmony, a concept that allows for the discreteness of individual notes while acknowledging their fusion as an emergent higher whole.

Even so, the fairies present difficulties (as one would expect with a mischief-maker like Puck among them), if only because they remain invisible to all humans except Bottom, to whom in a sense they are also invisible. But this very invisibility may inspire grand visions. Unwilling to accept Theseus’ dismissal of ‘fairy toys’, many critics discern in the fairies suggestions of a cryptic otherness denied to reason and not entirely accessible to the imagination. If they do not represent the mysteries of nature (Sewell 1960), then they serve as instruments of neoplatonic love (Vyvyan, 1961), as reminders that ‘this world of sense in which we live is but the surface of a vaster unseen world by which the actions of men are affected or overruled’ (Goddard 1951: 74), as a recollection of the heaven available to us in prelapsarian times (Bryant 1964), or perhaps as metaphors for the workings of the mind (Freedman 1991). Searching for a unity of meaning behind these various views, one might claim to find it in the imagination, whose role in putting the play together is alleged a bit breathily by Harold Goddard:
There are the fairies. There are the lovers. There are the rustics. There is the court. What metaphysical as well as social gulfs divide them! But Imagination bridges them all. Imagination makes them all one. (Goddard 1951: 77)

However, whether imagination really does make them all one has been at issue ever since those early productions featuring the fairies but not the workmen, or the workmen but not the fairies, or Pyramus and Thisbe without, perhaps, either. Even the old ‘new critics’, to whom formal unity was sometimes as dear as the ‘One’ to Renaissance neoplatonists, conceded a complicating doubleness to the play. For Stephen Fender (1968), the contrasting responses to fairyland of Bottom, the lovers and Theseus forecast a general sense of irresolution and puzzlement with which the play leaves its audience (Fender 1968: 59-60). R. Chris Hassel (1970) finds the paradox of human fineness and failure reflected in an Epilogue that balances, or teeters, on a tightrope between the imagined and the real; and Ronald F. Miller emphasises the mysterious and tantalising effects brought about by Shakespeare’s pluralistic presentation of fairyland as simultaneously desirable and incredible (R. F. Miller 1975: 267-8).

1974; F. W. Clayton 1979; Franke 1979) and social and generic subversions of the workmen and their play are, as Michael D. Bristol says, ‘social critique by inadvertency’ (1985: 178). It is not as if the play ends with the workmen smouldering with social and political resentment, though it may end with the audience sympathetically re-evaluating those ‘whose energies the social system relies on’ even while it laughs at their foolery (Patterson 1989: 69).

As that implies, any attempt to issue definitive pronouncements aboutA Midsummer Night’s Dream risks being baffled by an elusive doubleness and ambivalence that leave us feeling, as Puck’s Epilogue implies we should feel, much like the lovers and Bottom looking back on their mysterious experiences in the wood. ‘Methinks I see these things with parted eye’, Hermia murmurs, and many a playgoer has nodded agreement. ‘The real meaning of A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, Stephen Fender claims, ‘is that no one “meaning” can be extracted from the puzzles with which a fiction presents its audience’ (1968: 64). Thus with Puck in the Epilogue standing flush before us while he invites us to dissolve him and the entire play into a dream, we are given a final warning about the hermeneutical hazards of this duck-rabbity dreamwork, and we can hardly help hearing in his words an echo of Bottom’s caveat that ‘Man is but an ass, if he go about to expound this dream of mine’- a remark hardly calculated to inspire hubris in anyone about to disburden himself of a weighty expounding.

Much of this doubleness of effect issues from Shakespeare’s theatrical self-consciousness. J. Dennis Huston maintains that despite other virtues, ‘none of the mature comedies manages the dramatic medium as spectacu¬larly as A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and none so obviously affirms, demonstrates and celebrates the dramatist’s play-making powers as this’ (Huston 1981: 121). Even Barber’s classic study of 1959 spoke of how Shakespeare’s sophisticated play on the ambiguities of theatre muddies the pure illusions that Hazlitt, Lamb and other romantic critics desired to see on stage but could find only when reading the play in their study (Barber 1959: 140-1). Instead of providing access to other-worldly visions, the imagination (or the lack of it, as in Pyramus and Thisbe) provides metadramatic observations on theatrical art itself, usually in ways that extend theatricality into the offstage world of social behaviour and shed light inward on the theatre of the mind (Dent 1964; Young 1966; Edwards 1968; Iser 1961; Homan 1969; Carroll 1985; Marshall 1982; Rhoads 1985).
Since around 1980, criticism of the play has come to reflect new developments in critical theory. Freudian criticism had been around for some while, of course (Gui 1952-3, Holland 1960; Faber 1972), but not until the essays collected in Representing Shakespeare did the work ofJacques Lacan, D. W. Winnicott, Erik H. Erikson and other psychoanalysts become influential (Holland 1980; Marshall 1982; MacGary 1985; Freedman 1991). During the same period, cultural materialists (Krieger 1979; Evans 1986; Schneider 1987), ‘new historicists’ (Montrose 1983; Leinwand 1986; Tennenhouse 1986; Patterson 1989) and feminists (Garner 1981; Montrose 1983) have by and large shifted the critical focus away from the formal or aesthetic features of the play, seeking to evaluate it in light of and as contributing to Elizabethan ideological, political and social structures. Yet the light cast by these studies remains subject to the indeterminacy principle: wave-like, the play ‘panders to an aristocratic ideology by wreak¬ing comic punishment on all those who defy the prince’s legislation of desire’ (Freedman 1991: 155), yet, particle-like, it explores and even criticises the uses and abuses of power in Elizabethan society (Leinwand 1986: 30). What is generally agreed on, however, is that the happy ending once so roundly applauded is subtly but severely compromised, whether by the play’s ‘collaboration with the state ideology’ (Freedman 1991: 155), by the ‘unreconciled hostility’ of the workmen (Schneider 1987: 205) or by an ‘ironic prognosis for the new marriages’ (Montrose 1983: 44).
Of course, when critics are as sensitively attuned as we are today to ‘political bias’ (race, gender, species, nation, ethnicity, religion, etc.), it is questionable whether the happy ending of any Shakespearian comedy can survive scrutiny.2 This can be a mixed blessing, or a mixed curse,
depending on your viewpoint. For C. S. Lewis, it was a mixed curse brought about by our readiness to judge the past by standards we take to be superior when in fact they are often merely different, usually in degree, sometimes almost in kind:
A modern, ordered to profess or recant a religious belief under pain of death, knows that he is being tempted and that the government which so tempts him is a government of villains. But this background was lacking when the period of religious revolution began. No man claimed for himself or allowed to another the right of believing as he chose. All parties inherited from the Middle Ages the assumption that Christian man could live only in a theocratic polity which had both the right and the duty of enforcing true religion by persecution. Those who resisted its authority did so not because they thought it had no right to impose doctrines but because they thought it was imposing the wrong ones. (C. S. Lewis 1954:39)

In a similar vein (but in a passage I can no longer locate), Northrop Frye rebukes modern readers for an anachronistic tendency to accuse Shake¬speare of being anti-democratic when in fact he is simply pre-democratic. Surely a good deal depends on the context of comparison: set him beside Terry Eagleton and Shakespeare is a misogynist, but next to Rabelais, he is a proto-feminist.

A major danger in writing ‘politically conscious’ criticism of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is that the critic may discover in himself a capacity to ferret out sins that borders on genius but that also belies the spirit of comedy and militates Malvolio-like against life’s cakes and ale. The genre Shakespeare worked in when writingA MidsummerNight’s Dream – a blend of Graeco-Roman ‘New Comedy’ and native English festive forms filtered through Lyly and seasoned with Ovid – defined its happy ending as social reconciliation and provided little encouragement for the kind of satiric subversiveness of so-called Old Comedy. C. L. Barber first drew attention to the influence on Shakespearian comedy of festive traditions featuring a saturnalian movement through holiday release to clarification and social communion (Barber 1959: 8). This ritual movement – described by an¬thropologists like Van Gennep and Victor Turner and, in its camivalesque form, by Mikhail Bakhtin – has been seen by later critics to underlie the three-part structure of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and to permit the expression of social criticism within a condoned and containing form (Berry 1984; Bristol 1985; Kott 1987; Patterson 1989). The carnivalesque is represented by the workmen and especially by their performance of Pyramus and Thisbe.-3 However, the sexual double entendres (T. Clayton 1974; F. W. Clayton 1979; Franke 1979) and social and generic subversions of the workmen and their play are, as Michael D. Bristol says, ‘social critique by inadvertency’ (1985: 178). It is not as if the play ends with the workmen smouldering with social and political resentment, though it may end with the audience sympathetically re-evaluating those ‘whose energies the social system relies on’ even while it laughs at their foolery (Patterson 1989: 69).

As that implies, any attempt to issue definitive pronouncements aboutA Midsummer Night’s Dream risks being baffled by an elusive doubleness and ambivalence that leave us feeling, as Puck’s Epilogue implies we should feel, much like the lovers and Bottom looking back on their mysterious experiences in the wood. ‘Methinks I see these things with parted eye’, Hermia murmurs, and many a playgoer has nodded agreement. ‘The real meaning of A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, Stephen Fender claims, ‘is that no one “meaning” can be extracted from the puzzles with which a fiction presents its audience’ (1968: 64). Thus with Puck in the Epilogue standing flush before us while he invites us to dissolve him and the entire play into a dream, we are given a final warning about the hermeneutical hazards of this duck-rabbity dreamwork, and we can hardly help hearing in his words an echo of Bottom’s caveat that ‘Man is but an ass, if he go about to expound this dream of mine’- a remark hardly calculated to inspire hubris in anyone about to disburden himself of a weighty expounding.

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Ken again, but maybe not for long.......?

Research Notes on ‘Dream’


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