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TOPIC: Drama History Analysis (Midsummer Night's Dream)

Drama History Analysis (Midsummer Night's Dream) 8 years 3 weeks ago #106

A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Tempest may be so far compared that in both the influence of a wonderful world of spirits is interwoven with the farcical adventures of folly. A Midsummer Night's Dream is certainly an early production; but The Tempest, according to all appearance, was written in Shakespeare's later days. Hence, most critics, on the supposition that the poet must have continued to improve with increasing maturity of mind, have honored the later piece with a marked preference.

The internal merit of the two works are, however, about evenly balanced, and a predilection for the one or the other is a matter of personal taste. In profound and original characterization the superiority of The Tempest is obvious: as a whole we must always admire the masterly skill which he has here displayed in the economy of his means, and the dexterity with which he has disguised his preparations--the scaffoldings for the wonderful aerial structure.

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

Oberon is desirous of relieving the lovers from their perplexities, but greatly adds to them through the mistake of his minister, till he at last comes really to the aid of their fruitless amorous pain, their inconstancy and jealousy, and restores fidelity to its old rights. The extremes of fanciful and vulgar are united when the enchanted Titania awakes and falls in love with a coarse mechanic with an ass's head, who represents, or rather disfigures, the part of a tragical lover. The droll wonder of Bottom's transformation is merely the translation of a metaphor in its literal sense; but in his behavior during the tender homage of the Fairy Queen we have an amusing proof how much the consciousness of such a head-dress heightens the effect of his usual folly. Theseus and Hippolyta are, as it were, a splendid frame for the picture; they take no part in the action, but surround it with a stately pomp. The discourse of the hero and his Amazon, as they course through the forest with their noisy hunting-train, works upon the imagination like the fresh breath of morning, before which the shapes of night disappear. Pyramus and Thisbe is not unmeaningly chosen as the grotesque play within the play; it is exactly like the pathetic part of the piece, a secret meeting of two lovers in the forest, and their separation by an unfortunate accident, and closes the whole with the most amusing parody.

"I am convinced," says Coleridge, "that Shakespeare availed himself of the title of this play in his own mind, and worked upon it as a dream throughout." The poet, in fact, says so in express words:

If we shadows have offended,
Think but this (and all is mended),
That you have but slumber'd here,
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend.

But to understand this dream--to have all its gay and soft and harmonious colors impressed upon the vision, to hear all the golden cadences of its poesy, to feel the perfect congruity of all its parts, and thus to receive it as a truth, we must not suppose that it will enter the mind amidst the lethargic slumbers of the imagination. We must receive it

As youthful poets dream
On summer eves by haunted stream.

No one need expect that the beautiful influences of this drama can be truly felt when he is under the subjection of literal and prosaic parts of our nature; or, if he habitually refuses to believe that there are higher and purer regions of thought than are supplied by the physical realities of the world. If so, he will have a false standard by which to judge of this, and of all other high poetry--such a standard as that of the acute and learned critic, Dr. Johnson, who lived in a prosaic age, and fostered in this particular the ignorance by which he was surrounded. He cannot himself appreciate the merits of A Midsummer Night's Dream: "Wild and fantastical as this play is, all the parts in their various modes are well written, and give the kind of pleasure which the author designed. Fairies, in his time, were much in fashion; common tradition made them familiar, and Spenser's poem had made them great." And thus old Pepys, with his honest hatred of poetry: "To the King's theatre, where we saw A Midsummer Night's Dream, which I had never seen before, nor shall ever again, for it is the most insipid, ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life."

Hallam accounts A Midsummer Night's Dream poetical more than dramatic; "yet rather so, because the indescribable profusion of imaginative poetry in this play overpowers our senses, till we can hardly observe anything else, than from any deficiency of dramatic excellence. For, in reality, the structure of the fable, consisting as it does of three, if not four, actions, very distinct in their subjects and personages, yet wrought into each other without effort or confusion, displays the skill, or rather instinctive felicity, of Shakespeare, as much as in any play he has written."


This document was originally published in The Drama: Its History, Literature and Influence on Civilization, vol. 13. ed. Alfred Bates. London: Historical Publishing Company, 1906. pp. 152-157.
Last Edit: 2 years 8 months ago by William Shakespeare.
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Drama History Analysis 8 years 2 weeks ago #131

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I find these articles fascinating as much for what they reveal about the time written as about the plays themselves. That is not to say they are without insight - the best criticism has timeless elements.

For me they function as a goad to stimulate my own responses as well as a warning that our own views are also "time embeded".

I intend spend part of this weekend preparing a response - already the goad is working.
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Drama History Analysis 8 years 2 weeks ago #134

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Once Upon A Time . . .

... this is how people thought about and responded to Shakespeare's plays.

Reading some of the 'out of copyright' criticism increasingly available on the web can be rewarding, in a perverse sort of way.

Reading the first two paragraphs reminds us that this now very popular and respected play was held in less regard in Times Past. The author felt the need to justify giving the same dignity to The Dream as was given to The Tempest.

He (I assume, given the date, a he) links the two plays as, 'both under the influence of a wonderful world of spirits' - which is in itself, quite telling.

Would I describe the likes of Oberon and Titania as spirits?

I think not.

To me it seems the compounding of the (Super) Natural world of The Dream with the artifice-book-magic world of The Tempest is to make a fundamental mistake.

Oberon and Titania are powerful embodients of forces in Nature - their arguements lead to massive shifts in the balance of the seasons, causing untold (if hinted at) harm to the lives of ordinary people. Their 'stage' is the whole world - shifting from India to Ancient Athens, and then on around the Globe. They are under the control of no man - but condescend to bless the mortal marriage beds. Part of Titania's punishment is to be enthralled to that basest of creatures, the common working man.

In contrast, the spirits (and here I think the word is appropriate) in The Tempest , principly Ariel, are much weaker, superficial stuff. They create illusions through theatrical trickery requiring the use of book, props and costume - much more cyphers from an alegory than characters. They are bound to a human magician of dubious morality whose 'art' is barely strong enough to control a small Mediterranian island.

Shakespeare was not revisiting 'the wonderful world of spirits' when he wrote The Tempest, he was creating something very different from the elemental forces let loose in the earlier play.

The Dream is about imagination, a human talent: For the Elizabethans, God given.

The Tempest is about illusion - theatrical illusion principally, but also deceit and double dealing in the very real world, where it becomes a human failing.
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Drama History Analysis 8 years 2 weeks ago #146

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In the third paragraph we really see what is, to my eyes, limiting our Victorian commentator.

Here, he uses some very interesting words to conjure up the 'fairy world'. His talk is of 'colours...of clear transparancy'; 'variegated fabric...blown away with a breath'; elegent pieces of arabesque'; 'little genii'. The stuff of wallpaper and interior decoration.

This is the sweet cloying vision of 'Tinkerbell' from Peter Pan, of photographs of lace winged fairies at the bottom of the garden, the Romantic Fairies of Celtic Revival, and modern garden furniture - Only one step away from moony pulling garden gnomes.

Sentimental, not fearsome. Amusing, but without any depth.

At worst, these are naughty children, with the innocent jealousies of those 'tender' in years.

After all, they 'sport childishly,' don't they?

Their passions are only, 'ideal dreams,' aren't they?

And this vision of spirits and naughty innocence is taken on wholeheartedly - to the extent that the very structure of the play becomes an 'ingenious and lucky accident'. and everything is, 'lightly and happily interwoven'.

Make no mistake, it is a potent vision: In countless junior school classrooms all over England, A Midsummer Nights Dream is still given this 'light' treatment, and is used to introduce Shakespeare to children far too inexperienced to see through it.

I am tempted to say it is the worst crime perpetrated against any piece of literature in the whole sorry history of the well intentioned ignorance we call, 'Getting an Education'.


Another part of the problem originates in the standards, expectations and limitations of theatrical productions of the time.

In the popular theatre, the Proscenium Arch dominated; design was driven by the two dimensional, framed, stage picture - and realism was 'God'. No wonder then that The Tempest found favour - thriving on illusion - whilst The Dream was relegated to a sub-sublime, if not standard, entertainment - the play requires an audience to use its imagination, and that is not the audience's prerogative any longer.

To give 'life' to Victorian fairies, you needed small people - children, preferably female, and able to do a few steps of ballet - in pretty dresses, with lace wings on wire frames. Whole forests needed to appear on stage, real rabbits needed to hop between the trees.

It is The Dream with Mendelssohn's music, and all imagination stripped away.

Fantasy as entertainment and distraction. Look at the illusion, forget the words.

How different from the bare stage, all male productions of the Globe Theatre: Words create here; the texts 'work on your imaginary forces' to bring the forest, the city, the magic itself into that home of dreams, your own mind.

And it is a text which, to the Elizabethan audience, in this most entertaining of plays, raises serious issues: What is the importance of harmony in marriage, in society, in life? What role does our imagination play in the search for truth? If we 'sleep on it', how do our dreams operate to make the morning, 'wiser than the night'?

But this is not our theatrical Fairy World either - bare stages have returned, via Brecht, and the 'serious' theatrical is once again more word orientated.

Our dreams though are constructed in a post-Freudian, post-Jungian mish mash of subconciousness and symbolism. Sex is once more released, and Shakespeare has become our contemporary.

Fairies are no more real to us than to the Victorians - they are a theatrical device. And marriages are not expected to last, devorce is the norm, and extra-marital relations mere entertainments.

But our fairies have regained and are regaining more of their power - climate change and balance in Nature is an issue.
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Drama History Analysis 8 years 2 weeks ago #147

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By the time we come to the 4th paragraph, our critic is able to shake off some of the constraints imposed by the Victorian Fairy-World View. And here he really does start to earn his money, as far as a 21st Century reader is concerned.

He highlights Oberon's decision to reverse Helena's pursuit of Demitrius. It is an essential moment in the play, and one we easily accept - perhaps too easily - we, the audience, know the background, we know what a rat Demetrius is being.

How did Oberon get the information?

He didn't, what Oberon senses, as a force of Nature, is the imbalance, the self-deception and disharmony.

The word chosen in the paragraph is 'perplexities' - and that, I think, is a very apposite choice. Could Demetrius be as puzzled as Helena?

And Oberon is "relieving" the two lovers of this perplexity - again, a very interesting choice of word. Some pressure has built up and Oberon is going to open a valve and let it come hissing out - just like a good burp!

Up until now, I have always thought of Oberon's use of the herb, Love in Idleness, more as an imposition; but if he is restoring a balance, it is indeed, much more a release, certainly in the case of Demetrius.

Will this extend to his use of the herb on Titania?

And, as if in order to answer that question, the paragraph moves on to Titania and Bottom.

Again the real world comes crashing in. I get a sense of Bottom , 'a coarse mechanic' as a working class, cotton mill machine operative rather than the artisan of Shakespeare's time. We are in Victorian Lancashire rather than Elizabethan Wiltshire.

The middle class audience of Drury Lane are watching a play meant for the pre-industrial, classless members of the Globe audience. And how, I wonder, do they percieve the worthy Bottom?

But we do get an little more insight - Bottom's transformation intensifies and hightens.

Why Bottom? Why an Ass?

If the herb releases, what is the boil, building pressure in Titania, that needs lancing?

She has become obsessed with a false love - just like Demetrius.

Her love is a mortal child - a changeling. Despite countless productions to the contrary, this is not a baby, it is a child old enough to serve Oberon as a squire - maybe just on the border of adolescence and sexual activity. Shakespeare had enough boy actors around to make that very clear.

Bottom is mortal, and venal - just like the changeling. Once transformed, his closeness to the animal world is 'hightened'. Puck has talked of getting stallions 'excited', and how they neigh - then he transforms Bottom to a form of horse, the Ass. Bottom bursts into he-haws, just like the stallion. He talks of getting, 'new nuts'! He has desires which only fulfill his basest needs.

In order to know herself, Titania has to be taken to the extreme. Her love for the motal ( mortality?) is a perversion of nature - she has a partner, and a duty to presserve the balance that partnership brings to the Natural World.

Make no mistake, this is not a subservient role - not one single female character in this play could be described as anything other than strong minded, independent and equal to any man. The only person who seems to think women should be otherwise is Egeus - and he gets the daughter he deserves.
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Drama History Analysis 8 years 1 week ago #158

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Another idea of merit, at least at first glance, is the use of the metaphor of Theseus and Hippolyta as a 'splendid frame'.

Normally we seperate the play into the world of the wood and the city - and that has merit too - but Hippolyta and Theseus, like all the human characters, move out of the city into the wood. Theseus and his soon-to-be bride have gone into the wood to do 'observance' prior to their marriage. They then intended 'to get in a bit of hunting'. The speration of town and country is not quite so rigid as is frequently made out.

The idea of a frame, something which contains and limits (the idea here is of a rather ornate, Victorian picture frame), beautiful in itself, but which 'sets off' the contents, is interesting.

What is it that Theseus and Hippolyta have, are or represent that makes them suitable as a framework? One concept given to us is that of 'stately pomp': The frame is obviously covered in gold leaf.

Certainly the opening of the play would suggest such pomp - costumes in the Globe would be sumptuous for such figures as the hero and his 'Amazon', and the lovers and Egeus are aristocrates. Strict Elizabethan dress conventions would establish instantly for the audience exacly who and where these people were - courtiers in an urban, public place. Music would accompany the progress.

The After-the-wedding celebrations fit this pattern too - up to a point.

Conspicuous wealth on conspicuous show, something the Victorians understood.

However, this splendid frame gets a little disjointed - the mechanicals work their way into the wedding celebrations bringing with them a distincly tarnished patina and a danger of ugliness and ignorance. Almost a gargoyl on the cathedral wall (to crash quickly into another metaphor - the same way Shakespeare does by putting the mechanical's performance where he does).

And there are other twinges of doubt about the integrity of the frame - Hippolyta and Theseus don't quite seem to see eye-to-eye on a couple of issues: Her silence at the start of the play, after Egeus enters, 'speaks volumes' - so much so that Theseus has to ask, "What cheer my love?"

Their discussion of the role of imagination before the newly weds enter also smacks of disagreement, however civilized.

It is almost as if the frame also carries the themes of the contained picture, in a much more constrained way, but still complementary - not a neutral plain wood, but an active ornate, shallow carved but distinct piece of arabesque work?

So far I have concentrated on the constraining effect of the frame, but a frame also acts as a transition from the outside to the inside.

But more of that next post.
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Drama History Analysis 8 years 1 week ago #159

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That Shakespeare knew Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, especially the Knight's Tale, is certain; after all, The Two Noble Kinsmen is a reworking of that tale.

But there are echoes of the opening of the same tale in the opening of A Midsummer Nights Dream - Theseus wedding Hippolyta, "with muchel glory and greet solempnitee." (The 'stately pomp' of our Victorian commentator's 'splendid frame'.)

There is also talk of the battle they fought.

The names of certain characters, Theseus, Hippolyta, Philostrate come from the Knight's Tale and all appear and are named in the first few moments of the play.

If the Duke and his Amazon 'frame' the action of the play, they do so in a way which connects with a wider world - it is a frame which links to other frames and the pictures they contain. We have a gallery of images Shakespeare is willing to make reference to.

Shakespeare is invoking the Knight's Tale.

To do this, he must have been certain that at least some of his audience knew the work of Chaucer - and knew it well enough to recognise it quickly from the brief sketch he draws in the opening 24 lines.

But the connections seem to stop there: A Midsummer Nights Dream is a comedy with a happy ending; The Knight's Tale and The Two Noble Kinsmen are much darker, some would say tragic, stories with death and blighted love much to the forefront.

So, what is Shakespeare up to?

One thing I think he is doing is reminding his audience, from the outset, of this darker alternative to his happy ending - a sort of momento mori.

In The Knight's Tale, two friends end up loving the same woman and fight to the death for love of her: In A Midsummer Nights Dream, two friends almost end up doing the same thing. Without the alternative of The Knight's Tale ending, the Dream's ending is blunted.

If the border between Comedy and Tragedy is a knife edge, then this knife has been hoisted in the air and there is a dirty great chasm below it ready for someone to fall into.

When Theseus returns and finds the sleeping lovers, we are again reminded of Chaucer's Tale. Chaucer has Theseus and Ipolyta out hunting (and delighting in his hounds) when he comes across the two 'Noble Kinsmen' preparing to fight to the death; Shakespeare has the two lovers, who have spent the last part of the night before trying to fight each other, asleep. They will wake to a resolution worked by the 'magic' of the flower, but it is a resolution - the two kinsmen go on to fight until one is killed.

To know the Chaucer is to give an added depth to the Shakespeare who is framing his own Dream in the Knight's Tale.

But he doesn't stop there - he sticks another 'picture reference' into this frame - Ovid's Love Story of Pyramus and Thisbe. Remember, it is a gallery we are working in!

And here the twist is to bring 'Death' onto the stage and laugh at it. We cannot do this until we have finished with the 'action' contained within the picture, it can only be done in the frame.

There is a lot of milage in thinking about Theseus and Hipolyta as a frame to the action of the play, but it is a frame which does a lot more than provide a decorative container - it is the the conection with the outside world, it is the introduction to themes worked within the picture and it is the 'frame' on which the picture is stretched.
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