Following Shakespeare’s death in 1616, the dramatic works of Shakespeare were categorized by John Heminges and Henry Condell in the 1623 Folio edition of Shakespeare’s works under the categories ‘Comedies’, ‘Histories’, and ‘Tragedies’. Although this may strike us as conventional today, this grouping was not considered so at the time. In the most obvious precedent for such a collection, the 1616 Works of Ben Jonson, the plays were arranged chronologically.
Of the three Folio genres, two – comedy and tragedy – were part of traditions stretching back to classical times, traditions which in England encompassed native elements as well. The first play we will read this term, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is the first comedy we will have the opportunity to read this semester, so we will need to consider it all the more carefully. And next week, we will read one of Shakespeare’s history plays, Henry IV Part 1, a genre that had developed much more recently in Shakespeare’s time, and which he helped to shape.
As the critic Susan Snyder asks: “What is implied by the most basic distinction of all, that comedy ends happily and tragedy unhappily?” Since all plots involve threats and dangers, the assumption is that while in tragedies these threats are fulfilled, in comedies they may be evaded. Some have argued that we ought to characterize the dangers of comedy as small in scale compared to those of tragedy, but Shakespeare’s comic protagonists regularly face alienation, abandonment, and death. What makes the difference is not less serious perils but shifts and stratagems and sheer good luck break the chain of causality that seemed headed for certain catastrophe.
Critics have had a number of perspectives regarding what is at stake in Shakespearean comedy. Northrop Frye, for instance, believed that comedy is closely linked to archetypal myths. For Frye, Shakespearean comedy possessed a three part structure that moves from disorder at the beginning, into a “green world” away from culture in the middle (for example, the forest in A Midsummer Night’s Dream), returning in the end to the courtly world of culture. According to Frye, this structure performs a social function, a kind of rebirth through which the social world becomes reinvigorated, and accommodations are made by the characters who initially serve as obstacles to the hero’s desire. In Frye’s assertion of the universality of the archetypes he claimed are invoked in the plays, and his assertion the comedy results in the reintegration of social life, he interprets Shakespearean comedy as more or less conservative.
We might ask: is this understanding of Shakespearean comedy as a conservative genre universal in the literary criticism of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries?
For New Historicist critics such as Stephen Greenblatt, Leonard Tennenhouse, and Louis Montrose, this remains a general consensus but new considerations of the material are introduced. New Historicism, which followed the more structural approach of Frye, should be understood as much as a methodology as it is a theory that considers literary texts such as Shakespeare’s plays alongside non-literary historical texts of Shakespeare’s period. New Historicists are influenced by the French theorist Michel Foucault, whose account of the relationship between power and its subversion suggests that power does not exist solely in the institution of the State. Instead, power of all kinds pervades society at all levels, and language is a key instrument in the enforcement of this form of power, a power in which the subject internalizes (and often enforces) the mechanisms of his or her own subjection. Given these theoretical conclusions, New Historicist critics generally offer a picture of Shakespeare’s comedies that from one perspective is conservative, and from another contains elements that are subversive of the status quo.
Such New Historicist perspectives helped to revise our understanding of Shakespearean comedy and influenced feminist and gender criticism of the plays, all of which became prominent in Shakespeare criticism in the 1980s and 1990s. No methodology unites those critics, and no consensus of belief in the politics of the plays binds that criticism together: some see the plays as reaffirming gender hierarchies, some as offering profound challenges to those orders. Whatever its apprehension of the politics of Shakespeare’s comedies, however, feminist criticism has indubitably offered us new ways to think about old texts.
Louis Montrose provides an alternate perspective to Frye’s conception of Shakespearean comedy, as we see in this excerpt from Montrose’s essay on A Midsummer Night’s Dream:
According to the paradigm of Northrop Frye, Shakespearean comedy “normally begins with an anticomic society, a social organization blocking and opposed to the comic drive, which the action of the comedy evades or overcomes. It often takes the form of a harsh or irrational law, like … the law disposing of rebellious daughters in A Midsummer Night’s Dream…. Most of these irrational laws are preoccupied with trying to regulate the sexual drive, and so work counter to the wishes of the hero and heroine, which form the main impetus of the comic action.” Frye’s account of Shakespearean comic action emphasizes intergenerational tension at the expense of those other forms of social and familial tension from which it is only artificially separable; in particular, he radically undervalues the centrality of sexual politics to these plays by unquestioningly identifying the heroines’ interests with those of the heroes. The interaction of characters in the fictive societies of Shakespearean drama-like the interaction of persons in the society of Shakespeare’s England-is structured by the complex interplay among culture-specific categories, not only of age and gender but also of kinship and class. The “drive toward a festive conclusion” (Frye, A Natural Perspective, p. 75) which liberates and unites comic heroes and heroines also subordinates wives to husbands and confers the responsibilities and privileges of manhood upon callow youths.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
A Midsummer Night’s Dream was the twelfth play Shakespeare provided for his company to act.
Although Shakespeare wrote primarily for the commercial Globe and Blackfriars Theatres, there has been speculation that A Midsummer Night’s Dream was written for a special occasion. Some have argued that it was written to become part of a wedding celebration in a noble household, culminating as it does in the wedding celebration of Theseus and Hippolyta. Two possible occasions would have been the marriage between Elizabeth Vere and the Earl of Derby on 26 January 1595, and that between Elizabeth Carey and Thomas Berkeley on 19 February 1596.
There is no evidence to connect the play with either ceremony, and while aristocratic weddings were sometimes enhanced by formal entertainments, these usually took the form of a masque, and the first play known to have been provided specifically for such an occasion was Samuel Daniel’s pastoral Hymen’s Triumph (1614), written about twenty years later, when courtly entertainments had become much more elaborate.
Metamorphosis in the play
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a play about metamorphosis. Bottom the Weaver’s transformation in the play is perhaps its central image, but this theme extends to the fairies and the lovers within the play, as well as to a host of earlier tales and legends of men turned into monsters. From Circe in Homer’s Odyssey and Ovid’s Metamorphoses (also the main source for the story of Pyramus and Thisbe that Shakespeare’s mechanicals comically stage), and her power ‘most monstrous shapes to frame’ to classic stories of men turned into asses, as in the legend of the King Midas, whose ears were changes into ass’s ears when he refused to accept the general verdict that Apollo had beaten Pan in a musical contest. Bottom’s story is also rooted in The Golden Ass, in which Apuleius convinces his mistress to steal a box of ointment and anoint him with it, expecting that he will be changed into a bird, only to find that he is completely transformed into an ass and, what is worse, treated as one by other asses and horses, and by the thieves who take him and use him as a beast of burden.
Bottom is an embodiment of earthy humanity who remains splendidly himself whatever happens to him or around him, and a character with whom an audience can readily engage; at the same time his transformation into an ass fits him as one who is, in the scale of human folly, a natural, ingrained fool. His experience remains at the most prosaic level, and his dream, ‘ past the wit of man to say what dream it was’ (4.1.201), leaves him groping for words; he has no poetry in which to articulate his vision, only garbled phrases from the first sentence of 1 Corinthians 2.9-10. In the Bishops’ Bible the text runs: ‘The eye of man hath not seene, and the eare hath not heard, neither have entred into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him. But God hath revealed them unto us by his spirit; for the spirit searcheth all things, yea the deepe things of God.’ This does not mean that Bottom has some access or ‘means’ to grace, but suggests rather that the heaven revealed to Bottom corresponds to the limits of his imagination, and he is as impervious to the ‘ deepe things of God ‘ as he is to Titania’s attractions. He never becomes aware that he has been transformed into an ass, and if this lack of awareness marks a kind of innocence which is appealing, it also defines his limitations.
Setting in the play
Athens, in tradition a city of wisdom and order, contrasts with the woods to which the lovers flee as a place of disorder and licence. There the setting becomes a ‘stage projection of the inner condition of the lovers’, who experience a kind of fall and redemption, a passage from earthly, sensual love to rational love figured in marriage. This opposition is notably imaged in the ass-head placed on Bottom, the ass symbolising sensuality and stupidity, the carnal as opposed to the spiritual. If some critics have gone too far in identifying Oberon with reason and Titania with passion, they nevertheless illustrate how the play is rooted in traditions of neo-Platonic imagery and thought.
The play begins, however, from the tyranny of reason as embodied in the law that would sentence Hermia to death or perpetual chastity for disobeying her father. The lovers flee from Athens, the city as symbol of civilisation, to the woods outside, symbolic of the wilderness, only to find they have escaped one form of tyranny to encounter another, in themselves. ‘ Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind ‘ ( 1.1.234), and the characters ‘see’ a setting that reflects their state. For the lovers, the woods turn into a wild place, where savage beasts may be found (2.1.228), where Helena, in her unhappiness, comes to think ‘I am as ugly as a bear / For beasts that meet me run away for fear’ (2.2.100-1), and where Hermia dreams of being eaten by a serpent (2.2.155). What they see as savage reflects the increasing savagery of their own passions, as love and friendship turn to hatred. Demetrius ‘wood within this wood ‘ – that is, mad (wood) in a place appropriate for madness – talks already at 2.1.190 of killing Lysander, and he hates Helena (2.1.211) for following him. When Puck anoints the eyes of the wrong man, Lysander, his love for Hermia also turns to hatred as he pursues Helena : poor Hermia is now rejected, ‘Of all be hated, but the most of me!’ (2.2.148). Oberon’s intervention at 3.2.102, transforming Demetrius into the lover of Helena instead of Hermia, exacerbates the quarrels: Helena thinks all have ganged up on her, Hermia believes Helena, a ‘ thief of love ‘ (3.2.283), has stolen Lysander from her, and Lysander now quarrels with Demetrius over Helena.
The upshot brings violence and the threat of death, as Hermia seeks to scratch out Helena’s eyes, while Lysander and Demetrius go off, swords drawn it seems, to fight to the death (3.2.338). The lovers are wholly involved in all this, and the process we witness of love turning to hate and cruelty is real enough. As Barber put it, they ‘are unreservedly in the passionate protestations which they rhyme at each other as they change partners’.
Yet another element of discord is shown in the quarrel between Oberon and Titania, which also has its ‘ real ‘ effect in the transformation of the seasons and confusion in nature:
The spring, the summer,
The childing autumn, angry winter change
Their wonted liveries, and the mazed world
By their increase now knows not which is which. (2.1.111-14)
The passions generated by these quarrels are all part of the felt experience of the play for an audience. The stylistic control is exercised through the verse structure, the patterning of the action, and through the aesthetic distancing of the lovers’ quarrels into, as it were, a play within the play; this ensures the promise of a genial outcome.
For Oberon and Puck, who supervise the lovers, and take care that in the end no harm is done, the woods are a different sort of place. Titania accuses Oberon of stealing away from ‘Fairyland’ in pursuit of amorous adventures, or more directly, from India (2.1.65, 69).
The experiences of the lovers, their changes and illusions, have a deeper meaning in so far as their release from the restraints of the court and control of the law leads to the working out of sensual and violent impulses and a measure of self-discovery.
It would not do to press such an argument too far in relation to characters as slightly drawn as Hermia, Helena, Lysander and Demetrius; but for them, as for Titania, the return to daylight, to reason, leads to a joyful acceptance or renewal of the bonds of love, and so their experiences in the wood are ‘admirable’, to be wondered at, for the effect they have.
Some critics have argued that the play upholds the importance of dreams or fantasy, and demonstrates that reason impoverishes the imagination. Other critics have suggested instead that it exposes the absurdities of the imagination and gives approval to the voice of reason.
Oberon and Titania in any case belong to ‘Fairyland’ (2.1.65), which is everywhere and nowhere, and are no more Indian than they are Athenian or English. If Oberon’s practical joke on Titania can be related to patriarchal oppression and control of women in the sixteenth century, the fleeing of the lovers to the forest may be seen as an escape from the restrictions of society and tyranny of parents into a green world where Hermia and Helena, Lysander and Demetrius are freed to express themselves, quarrel, make up, and choose their mates, with a little help from Puck’s magic. At the same time, from the opening lines the play allows the possibility of contrary interpretations, according to the way Hippolyta behaves in response to the speech of Theseus:
Hippolyta, I wooed thee with my sword,
And won thy love doing thee injuries;
But I will wed thee in another key,
With pomp, with triumph, and with revelling. (1.1.16-19)
Hippolyta says nothing, and remains silent until she leaves the stage, possibly at this point (there is no stage direction) or possibly later when all but Lysander and Hermia depart at line 127. In some productions Hippolyta has avoided Theseus and made her exit alone, as if feeling her ‘injuries’ and rejecting male dominance, while in others she willingly bonds to Theseus. Hippolyta’s silence can be used to suggest harmony or to ‘deepen a split between her and Theseus’. Whatever choice is made at this point may affect the way the rest of the play is treated, and permits a feminist reading that would emphasise overbearing males and female resistance to male authority. Egeus could then be played as tyrannical monster rather than a tetchy father misguidedly trying to do his best for his daughter Hermia.
Another significant relationship for interpreting the play is that Theseus has taken Hippolyta by force of arms, and the draconian laws of Athens provide the death penalty for a daughter like Hermia who disobeys her father. Oberon and Titania quarrel, causing disorder in the natural world, and the lovers need Puck’s aid to stop them fighting. Transformed into an ass,
Bottom remains himself, still recognisable to his friends Snout and Quince even as he is ‘changed’ and ‘translated’ (3.1.96, 98). He is too preoccupied with eating and sleeping to n otice Titania’s attempts to couple with him, yet there is something disturbing about the hint of bestiality underlying the comedy here. Theseus and his court condescend to Bottom and the mechanicals in the last act, reaffirming their authority and class superiority. A play that is concerned with the ‘course of true love’ and ends with fairies blessing the bridal beds, frequently calls attention to the sexual drives that are so potently imaged in the lovers’ quarrels and Titania doting on Bottom. The society depicted remains patriarchal. These factors all thicken the texture
of the play, and contribute to its complexity, but need to be seen in relation to the comic dream that shapes the action. The play moves from discord to peace and from anger to laughter. Discords are resolved by the end of the fourth act, and the final act is centred on the playlet of Pyramus and Thisbe, which may be the silliest stuff Hippolyta has heard (5.1.204), but remains still perhaps the funniest of all interludes for most theatre audiences. It makes absurd parental authority, the passion of lovers, discord, and death itself, toppling tragedy into farce, and so puts into comic perspective all the quarrels and bitterness of the previous action. After all has been
said about the political and social contexts of the play, its ‘figurations of gender and power’, and its threats of violence, the play remains, deepened but unscathed in its marvellous drive on stage towards a festive conclusion that is enhanced by laughter.
It is, after all, a comedy, and it has been well said that ‘Comedy is a momentary and publicly useful resistance to authority and an escape from its pressures; and its mechanism is a free discharge of repressed psychic energy or resentment through laughter. Its purpose is comparable to the release of the dream.” The title of the play indeed suggests the idea of such release.