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A Midsummer Night’s Dream

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A Midsummer Night's Dream : synopsis photo

Act I

Scene 1

Theseus and Hippolyta look ahead to their wedding day, in four days’ time. Hermia plans to defy her father and elope with Lysander, but Helena reveals their plan to Lysander’s rival, Demetrius.

The scene takes place in Athens. The characters are :

  • Duke Theseus
  • Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons. 
  • Egeus and his daughter Hermia
  • Two suitors : Lysander and Demetrius

Hermia is in love with Lysander. Egeus wants her to marry Demetrius or die. Helena loves Demetrius.

Scene 2

A group of craftsmen from Athens have decided to stage a play, “Pyramus and Thisbe”, to celebrate the marriage of Theseus and Hippolyta. They cast the play and plan the rehearsal.

Peter Quince is a carpenter. He wrote the play and organized the rehearsal. Nick Bottom is a weaver. He wants to play every part of the play.

The secret rehearsal takes place in the wood.

Act II

Scene 1

The King and Queen of the Fairies, Oberon and Titania, quarrel in the wood over possession of a human boy. In revenge, Oberon sends his helper Robin for magic juice to put on Titania’s eyes, which will make her fall in love with the first creature she sees. When Oberon observes Demetrius spurning Helena, he decides that the magic juice should be applied to Demetrius’ eyes too, so that he would fall in love with her.

Scene 2

Oberon anoints the eyes of the sleeping Titania. Robin, however, mistakenly applies the juice to Lysander, who suddenly falls in love with Helena and abandons Hermia.

Act III

Scene 1

The craftsmen arrive in the wood to rehearse their play but their performance is disrupted by the mischievous Robin who uses magic to give Bottom the head of an ass. After the others have fled from him in terror, Titania awakens and, under the spell of the magic juice, falls in love with the transformed Bottom.

Scene 2

Demetrius has met with Hermia, who continues to reject his love. Oberon observes them quarreling and realizes that Robin’s intervention has misfired. Trying to put the situation right, he applies the juice to Demetrius’ eyes when Helena is nearby : as a consequence, Demetrius and Lysander become rivals for Helena’s love.

Helena believes both of them are tormenting her, with the connivence of Hermia. To prevent violence, Oberon orders Robin to intervene, drawing the lovers apart. Once they have grown weary and fallen asleep, Robin puts an antidote juice on Lysander’s eyes to take away his love for Helena. There is no fear of tragic ending.

Act IV

Scene 1

Oberon and Robin remove the magic spells from Titania and Bottom, and the King and Queen of Fairies are reunited. Theseus and his companions, out early in the morning, discover the four lovers, who explain their changed feelings. Theseus overrules Egeus’ objections and declares that the two young couples shall be married alongside Hippolyta and him. When everyone has left, Bottom awakens and reflects on his strange “dream”.

Scene 2

The other craftsmen are lamenting Bottom’s loss and the consequent cancellation of their play, when he arrives to announce that all is well and their play may be staged after all.

Act V

Scene 1

On the evening of the three marriages, Theseus agrees to the staging of “Pyramus and Thisbe”. The play is badly written and acted but this increases people’s entertainment.

When all the humans have gone to bed, the fairies enter the house and bless those who reside there and their children to come.

Robin stays behind to deliver an epilogue. The play concludes where it started, in Athens.

Narratives

Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad

Macbeth by Shakespeare

A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Shakespeare

Richard III by Shakespeare

World War One Poetry

Regeneration by Pat Barker

“Titania with Ass-headed Bottom” by Johann Heinrich Füssli (1793/4)

Introduction

Shakespeare has used many genres to convey his stories, especially comedies, tragedies and historical plays.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a comedy.

A comedy is a kind of drama which is intended primarily to entertain the audience and which usually ends unhappily for the characters. There are:

  • romantic comedies: revolving around love (As you like it).
  • satiric comedies: see French playwright Molière.

I – A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the convention of comedy

Shakespeare was influenced by the concept of intertextuality and there are literary interferences all the time in his plays. Shakespeare inherited a tradition derived from Antiquity with Greek and Latin authors such as Aristophanes, Plautus or Terence. It is indulging in a literary exercise:

  • indulge in a game in which high spirits prevail (at least for comedy).
  • celebrate life renewal.

In Molière, you can single out his intention of copying life, distorting it, making fun of it. The social dimension is essential and the satire is intended to bring out a moral lesson at the end. (L’AvareLe Malade Imaginaire).

In Shakespeare’s comedies, there is no satiric excess. They are light-hearted comedies of errors, whose main theme is usually marriage or a celebration of marriage. The spring of comedy is a stratagem of exchanging partners. Lysander and Demetrius suddenly fall in love: beginning of a long qui-pro quo. Helena and Hermia are unaware of what is going on and think they are made fun of.

This type of situation is also drawn from Italian comedy: la “comedia del arte”, based on qui-pro quo, mistakes, mistaken identities and the sudden reversal of relationships. A young woman who is in love with another woman dressed as a man (Twelfth NightAs you like it).

Here, the stratagem is based on the love juice. The comedy implies the participation of the audience on characters. We are aware of the love juice, we know the reason of the misunderstanding and the presence of the fairies. The Duke and Duchess are in the same position as we are, watching A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The superiority is shown by the audience. This is not found in tragedy: you tend to identify with the characters to the past in their own misery.

It is different from Molière: the comedy has a moral message. The epilogue is an appeal to balance and understanding: “if you pardon we will pardon“: triumph of common sense.

G. Meredith, in The Spirit of Comedy, said: “the comic spirit is the fountain of common sense”. In other words, the aim of the comedy is to re-introduce a balance in the end.

II – Shakespeare’s festive comedy

His comedies are celebrations and the mood is of holidays and festivals, making the whole experience of the play like that of a revel. Seasonal connotation: return of summer, victory of summer over winter.

Spring is the natural renewal. The play is about a midsummer festival and the aim is to celebrate a forthcoming marriage. The whole plot is entertained by music, dancing and disguise. The festival implies an escape to the woods, to a place out of the limits of ordinary society. It is a world set apart, which marks a break in ordinary life because it implies in the remote past: anything can happen. The wood becomes a place of celebration, leading to imagination, freedom, away from the context of social norms and order. Aberrations are things that are not normally tolerated but that are accepted within the norms of the play: we know that in the end, everything goes back to normal. Aberrations are tolerable as long as they do not last.

Because it is a festive comedy, no single characters control comedy, it is always as if it were a group. We have several groups of characters enjoying their own fun and they sometimes meet. Because it is a comedy, it also ends with a reconciliation, a promise of bliss. All negative features have been pushed aside and it brings back the characters to the beginning of the play but not exactly: something has happened in between.

The characters have been through a lot of tension and they have all been affected. Those tensions have been necessary to improve and society is indeed reinforced because the tensions have been solved.

III – A low comedy

The second layer of comedy (Puck, Bottom…) has very little in common with the first one. The people, very ordinary, are better suited for this low comedy. It relies on an absurd situation: the Queen of Fairies falls in love with an ass. The discrepancies appear in the gap between the register, between the message (Titania, declaring her love to Bottom) and the object (an ass): lots of ridiculous situations. There is even a third layer of comedy with Pyramus and Thisbe.

It is a farce: the subject of the play is inappropriate for the circumstances, a tragedy for a marriage celebration. The mechanicals are inappropriate as actors, unfit for the role they have. The play within the play gives way to satire. This other type of comedy is based on exaggeration (Pyramus’ death: “I die I die I die”). Presence of semantic mistakes (‘I’ll aggravate thy voice”): linguistic fun, use of alliterations. If too much, it becomes grotesque. Bottom is also the jester, typical of Elizabethan comedy. He is the fool, a naive instinctive character, an outsider to the main plot and in a good position to express the truth.

Conclusion

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of Shakespeare’s greatest comedies. It is not limited to one single comedy and mixes several dimensions: that is what makes it interesting. It is also more than a comedy in the sense that it could have become a tragedy.

I – Characters and structure

Multiplicity of lines. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is remarkable for the many levels of its text. The play is different from Romeo and Juliet or the Taming of the Shrew (which have one main plot) because of the various levels of plots and characters. There are 4 levels: Theseus and Hippolyta, the young lovers, the mechanicals, and the fairies.

There are connections between:

  • Theseus & Hippolyta and the young lovers: made by Theseus, member of court.
  • The young lovers: connection through marriage.
  • The mechanicals: difference in substance, in social background. Bottom does represent the bottom in many ways, carpenter, weaver, taller…

It is not so much similarity as contrast. It is more from one social circle to the opposite. Shakespeare often involves the lower order of society. The justification is not simply methodological but also social. In the end, the play is a picture of the society (with top and lower orders). There is a gradation in that social order: from the Duke to the normal people. This enable Shakespeare to make philosophical and social comments on the way society works ( harmony, balance, social order). High society does not necessarily embodies perfection.

The introduction of Bottom has a farcical dimension, linked to the Duke and his lover. The connection between the Duke and Bottom exists because the play is put up to pay homage to the Duke and his future wife.

Fairies and friends: break in social circle but also in tone. Fairies take us into the realm of fantasy. There is a balance between couples: the Duke and the future Duchess, Theseus and Hippolyta, Oberon and Titania. The first two couples are to be connected.

Opposition between mortals and immortals. Oberon and Titania argue, they are supposed to be invisible. Theseus and Hippolyta are flesh and blood mortals. Oberon and Titania fall in love at first sight, have exaggerated demands and quarrel like any ordinary couple: they behave like old mortals.

The plot has been compared to a dance in which you exchange partners with 3 positions:

  • Hermia and Lysander.
  • Hermia rejected, Lysander and Demetrius fighting for Helena.
  • return to harmony.

It also follows the musical tone of the play.

II – Plot and structure

A – City of tension which seems to jeopardize the forthcoming activities

Conflict between father and daughter. Impact on the whole society: Elizabethan theory about balance. The rebellion by two individuals also implies a rejection of the norms of he society. The lovers rejecting the laws of Athens have to leave and go to the woods.

Rejection of authority (both the father’s and the Prince’s authority). Consequently, the woods function as a sheltering place.

B – The forest

Opposition between the town and the country: Athens~wood and culture~nature. The woods are a rich symbolic place in literature: they are a going back to nature, a return to something which is simple and unsophisticated. The wood is a place of freedom as opposed to the constraints of the law of society, where one can break the rigidity of concentration of the city life. It is a beneficent place where the spirit of rebirth and rejuvenation is to be found.

It is a place of fun (break of rigidity) but also a dangerous place because it is dark and you can face a lion (Pyramus and Thisbe). Wild animals and wild men. It is a kind of maze, a labyrinth where you are likely to lose your wy and yourself (it is nearly what happened to Titania).

The wood is the symbol of the unconscious (c.f.. E. Young). We are in the realm of fantasy and imagination. It destabilizes but at the same time, it is also the forest that enables the return to contentment and order. It is a kind of necessary passage. The disorder of the forest enables a return of the end:

  • wood v. Athens
  • rational v. irrational
  • night v. day
  • waking v. dreaming

The play is a parenthesis in everyday life, it is festive. Holiday time: allowed to break the rules (law v. transgression).

C – Return to harmony – recovery – wedding festivities

It is a comedy: all is well that ends well. It would be wrong to say that the end is a return to the beginning: you cannot forget what happened in between : they achieved serenity and acceptance of authority. The final act is often interpreted as a conclusion (postlude) to the whole play (see Act 5, scene1, l.414: Puck’s and Oberon’s comments at the end of the play.

III – A play within the play

The play has an embedded structure, with a flash of genius which contributes to the success of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Introduction of a ridiculous character, Bottom, whom Titania must fall in love with (Oberon’s plan is to make Titania ridiculous). Pyramus and Thisbe are parallel to the main subject. The play is about going into the woods and face the danger.

The tone of the subplot turns into comedy and verges on farce. These actors are unfit to be actors: this creates a discrepancy between the main plot and the subplot, which is very funny.

The play reminds us of Romeo and Juliet: split, tension, family disunion but the most important justification is probably Shakespeare’s reflection on dramatic art: absence of women, problems of representation (moon..), and liability (the lion is not a real lion: how to persuade the public..). It is a mockery of bad drama: plenty of mispronunciations. Good example of "mock tragedy".

It is easy to consider the subplot as a parody of the main plot. The play is very complex, and parallels the complexity of themes and tones, and so many disconnected elements fit in so nicely in the end: that can account for the success of the play. The beginning and the end are set in the city, the middle is set in the woods.

Place of the play in Shakespeare’s work

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of the most famous and successful Shakespeare’s plays. The play is part of the early work of Shakespeare (1554-1616), it was written and performed in 1595-1596, just after The Taming of the Shrew and The Two Gentlemen of Verona.

There is a connection between Pyramus & Thisbe and Romeo & Juliet: one character kills himself because he thought his love is dead (tragedy of misunderstanding). It proves that Shakespeare could write a tragedy and a comedy at the same time.

In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, we have a tragedy within the comedy. Theme of rebelling children against their parents: 2 families at war but united through the love of their children.

Shakespeare could write in different moods at the same time: it goes very quickly from tragedy to comedy. Even in a comedy there is a substance of truth, of seriousness. A comedy is not empty of meaning.

Shakespeare’s last play is The Tempest (1611) and it is regarded as his testament for prosperity. Ariel is a kind of fairy, like Puck. Both plays have the same background of magic and fairies, and the episodes lead to a moral favol as an explanation of life’s mysteries: the surface of events and the meaning of events (more important).

Sources of the play

A Midsummer’s Night Dream is one of Shakespeare’s most leaned plays. Lots of information he took here and there:

  • Plutarch’s life.
  • Ovid’s Metamorphosis: Shakespeare borrowed Titania, who appeared as Diana.
  • Huon de Bordeaux (medieval French romance): Shakespeare borrowed Oberon.
  • Chaucer, The Knight’s Tale (love story).
  • and mythological references: Apollo…

Shakespeare put together all those apparently defragmented pieces to create an entirely original plot, which looks like a patchwork. His genius resides in the creation of something new in spite of the diversity of the elements.

Reception of the play

The play was not immediately admired.

18th century: the literary world showed skepticism towards it. It was the age of Reason and Enlightenment and the play had too little reason. 19th century: the judgments became more positive. Chesterton called it "the greatest of Shakespeare’s plays". and Frank Kermade "Shakespeare’s best comedy".

Why was it so popular ? Because it was most frequently performed and gave a lot of possibilities for stage directions. Shakespeare introduced a lot of singing and music so that it was easier for the audience and the actors to enjoy the play.

It is a comedy in which one past is hilarious but also a play with lots of ambiguities (position of women, position of the State). It is also a play with an usual modern dimension (sexual references).

The opening scene (Act I, scene 1, up to l.57)

It usually defines the setting and the characters and foreshadows what will come next. It can be divided into 2 parts:

     1- the dialogue between Theseus and Hippolyta
     2- Egeus’ complaint about his own daughter Hermia: we do not learn more about her but it is enough to show her determination.

A. Introduction scene

The Duke of Athens: enables Shakespeare to write about a very solemn character, a member of the royalty: he starts from the top characters to the lower characters. Egeus is a well know name for it belongs to mythology although we may wonder if he is the same as the mythological Egeus. At least it rings with it.

There is no date: the Athens we are presented with is not 16th century but related to antiquity. It is not obvious how much the audience is aware about that: it addresses an educated audience.

We are given one aspect of Theseus (the statesman), far from the mythological killer of beasts. He suggests authority and love, and has 2 dimensions: the statesman (public image) and the personal impending marriage (private). The theme of marriage is present in the very first sentence.

Hippolyta is the Queen of the Amazons. She has been vanquished by Theseus in one of his military fights: "I wooed her with my sword" : she was captured by him. We may question this relationship: it has to do with power and not love (the alliteration in "w" is not accidental).

Time: 4 happy days. The scene tells the audience that the wedding is due to take place in 4 days. In fact the play would last two days and one night.

B. Human relationships

Egeus’ complaint is the story of a rebelling daughter, it is almost a monologue, deeply anchored in the myth of vexation: the rhetorical inversions are a way of giving more strength to vexation. It is about a father:daughter relationship. Theme of rivalry between the 2 young men Demetrius and Lysander:

  • "Stand forth Demetrius"
  • "Stand forth Lysander"

Each of them represents one conception:

  • Demetrius: can marry someone even if there is love.
  • Lysander: it should be based upon love.

Love is irrational. Hermia pleads for feelings and her father for reasons. Children should be totally subservient to their father: "As she is mine, I may dispose of her". The play poses the problem of woman’s condition.

C. The Moon

The moon appears 28 times in the play. It is one of the richest symbol you can think of. At the beginning, the moon is too slow to appear. It is the moon that gives blessing to their wedding.

"Pale companion is not for our pomp": coldness, chastity, frigidity: the moon is sad and therefore incompatible with the spirit of mirth (incompatible with the play ?). The play is imbued with the spirit of night (A Midsummer Night‘s Dream), it i a kind of fantasy.

Summary of the plot

Theseus and Hippolyta are about to get married. A group of mechanicals want to prepare a play for their marriage. In parallel to that, Helena loves Demetrius who loves Hermia who loves Lysander. The Queen and King of the fairies, Titania and Oberon, have been quarrelling about a young motherless boy. The couple is split and she is strong will.

Oberon asked his servant Puck to drop some magic juice on Titania’s eyelids so that she would fall in love with the first person she wood meet: that would be Bottom, disguised in donkey by Puck. Oberon also asked Puck to drop magic juice on Lysander and Demetrius but Puck makes a mistake: Hermia is rejected and Helena is loved by both Demetrius and Lysander. In the end, everything returns and finishes with 3 weddings.

The play: Pyramus and Thisbe. Pyramus finds Thisbe’s piece of cloth blooded as if Thisbe had been eaten by a lion and kill himself. Thisbe comes back and sees Pyramus dead. She kills herself.

Different interpretations

  • theme of interest: lyricism and poetic beauty of the play.
  • becoming aware of the violence and madness of the play.
  • notion of power: political power (Duke of Athens), power relationships between men and women.
  • interpretation of love: romantic presence of love or cynical interpretation of love (all delusion): which type of love is it ?
  • fantastic dimension.
  • very performing play : play action.

Introduction

The characters are set in a given space and time. Shakespeare draws his material from a large body of social background, historical facts and myth: let us see the Greek background, the May festivities, and the fairies and spirits.

I – Greek background

The play is set in early Greece, in Athens. It is unexpected as so much of the play seems so typically England. Shakespeare was writing at the time where antiquity was the cultural reference, although the English Renaissance was more and more regarded.

But outside inspiration from Italy and Greece, Ovid, Aristofane, Plato, Aristotle were the early writers who set the norms of literature. Many of Shakespeare’s plays are set in these settings (Romeo and Juliet, Merchant of Venice, The Twelfth Night..).

The Greek setting is a serious frame of reference, which the educated audience would immediately recognize. It also provides a warranty of seriousness and sets a distance from 16th century England: it enables Shakespeare to contemplate his society while distancing it in the past, which was important because playwrights were very dependent on sponsors and political power.

This athenian background represents order and reason, all the more appropriate as it serves to emphasize the fantastic aspect of the forest.The story of Theseus and Hippolyta refers to Plutarch and Ovid. Theseus was famous for his adventures and exploits. He got lost in the labyrinth and was saved by Ariane. He killed the Minotaur, kidnapped Hippolyta and tried to marry her before he eventually married Phaedra.

Considering Shakespeare’s views of the myth, the reader is not sure who Hippolyta was. In theory, she represents female power, independence. Amazons were rebels and did not accept male supremacy. Males were considered as procreation objects and the male child was usually got ridden of. The Amazons have usurped masculine power and authority. Hippolyta is a concrete woman, she looks passive: the contrary of an Amazon. She is an example of a dominated woman (dominated by her future husband).

Although admired for his courage, Theseus was known for his betrayal of women (not an example of fidelity). The play is about fidelity and betrayal (the disorder of love): Theseus could not be faithful to one woman.

Two fathers: Egeus and Neptune. Association between a mortal and a god. It is said that his birth was the result of a female trick: dangers and complexity of love relationship.

It would be possible to interpret the forest as a labyrinth, it is a place where you can easily get lost.

II – May festivities

Feast days: Christmas, Mayday, Midsummer, harvest time. Some ambiguity about "May": month but also the hawthorn bush (may pole) which blossoms in May. The golden bough: in May, there was a custom to go out to the wood to cut the maypole and bring the spirits of the tree home. For Shakespeare, there is a tradition of going to the woods and bring back flowers as a sign of fertility, luck, hope and protection. Sexual dimension in this game: "the green gown".

Shakespeare was elaborating on a very famous theme: a night out with a ritual about vegetation, return to nature and celebration of luck.The Queen or King of May are covered with flowers. In the play, Oberon is covered with leaves. The Lord of Misrule, Pluck, upsets the order of the ceremony and plays tricks on participants. His confusion of identity can be seen as a way of upsetting order.

This rite does not necessarily takes place in May: it is also on Midsummer night & day. Shakespeare mixes the rite of May and of Midsummer (although similar). Midsummer eve: 23rd of June. It symbolizes the triumph of light over darkness, the beginning of summer, bonfires. The fire is a protection against witchcraft, cattle diseases, all sort of evil. There are no bonfires in the play.

Notion of turning point: end of spring, beginning of summer, longest day and beginning of shorter days. Midsummer is also associated with magic, spirits would be in the air during that night.

III – Fairies and spirits

The Fairies are part of the Elizabethan folk culture. Most people believed that they did exist (especially lower classes). As for their size, we tend to imagine small spirits; the problem is Titania’s size: she is large enough to be able to hold Bottom in her arms. They have the power of curing most diseases using plants but occasionally they could also do harm.

"They step out of a tradition of infernal connections and dark deeds".Oberon has been taken out of a Huon de Bordeaux, Titania from Ovid’s Metamorphoses (derived from Diana, connected with the moon).Robin Goodfellow (Puck): in fact Pouke, meaning devil or demon. Puck belongs to a different background from Oberon and Titania: p.37, we learn that he is half animal and half human, with hoofs and arms like the devil, pointed ears and a mischievous look. Yet, he has a neat beard and a benevolent face (opp. to devil). Creatures resembling witches are dancing around him. He has got a huge penis: connection with life. He holds a broom in his left hand: Puck was known to do housework at night.

l.378: "Not a mouse
Shall disturb this hollowed house
I am sent with broom before
To sweep the dust behind the door
".

Puck is half devil, famous for his tricks and pranks. Act II, sc.1: mischievous but at the same time: "they shall have good luck".

Puck’s ambiguity is remarkable, he has a power of transformation.

Very rich background of myth and folklore that Shakespeare borrowed and re-arranged in the play. It is not gratuitous for it adds up depth in the text. It also adds the fairy dimension, the mystery of a transcendent reality.

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