I. The Vice

Was the favourite character in medieval morality plays. He is both an intriguer and a deceiver. He
creates laughter and engages the audience’s sympathy in a conspirational relationship. Richard generates a special relation between word and deed. He tells the audience what he is going to do, then does it and finally recalls what he did: his soliloquies and asides create a feeling of conspiracy.

The Vice was also a figure of carnival, who fights the established authority and embodies the audience’s anti-authoritarian impulses. He is an outlet for the people’s frustration.

II. A Monster

Shakespeare has added a physical deformity to the character of Richard because Richard was not a hunchback. In fact, at that time, deformed people were said to be willing to take revenge against Nature: because they cannot change their lot, they want to bring people down. Another reason is that showing fairground attractions on stage was a trick often used by Shakespeare to incite people to see his plays. A both deformed and mobile character was a very scary monster.

III. The Machiavel

In the Elizabethan times, the Machiavel became a character but its initial status was absolute evil. In Christopher Marlowe’s Jew of Malta, there is a prologue entitled « The Prologue: Machiavel ». Richard is also considered as a reincarnation of Machiavel. In Henry VI, Richard already says:

« I have sent Machiavel to school ».

Machiavel’s vice is characterized by ambition and power. Vice’s vice is lust. Machiavel is morally deprived, at the point of boasting his own depravity. He is also more severe than Vice, very gifted with words and rhetorics and efficient in convincing people. He is very good at reaching his aims: he divides and then conquer (by opposing one side to the other).

For the Elizabethans, Machiavel was utter evil. In the Renaissance, he was more considered as an individualist. Individualism was strongly opposed to Augustine and Aquinas, for who history was providential and ruled by God. For Machiavel, on the contrary, everyone should play his own part in life.

In the play, the victory of the Machiavel is present from the beginning till the middle. The second part shows history as still providential: Richmond the God-Sent becomes King. Richard is an hypocrite too: as to become king, you must be religious, Richard appears between two bishops, « two props of virtue ».

The War of the Roses and the usurpation of the The War of the Roses and the York’s usurpation was still fresh in people’s minds. It had been a was still fresh in people’s minds. It had been a period of disorder and chaos: people still remembered the civil and the divisions within the State: there was a need for exorcism. Shakespeare’s plays had a cathartic function.

According to Aristotle, the function of tragedy is catharsis: the audience will go through very powerful emotions but they will be protected by their status of audience. There is a play between participation (sympathy) and non-participation. The catharsis will allow an internal problem to be solved or externalized.

Always a ritual quality in Shakespeare’s historical plays: the lamentation scenes (like in Act IV, scene 4 with Margaret). These scenes are very rhetorical but in a conventional manner (by use of anaphors), as opposed to Richard’s puns and inventive style.

IV. The Scourge of God

The evil ruler is sent by God to punish a sinful people, like Nero for the Romans. It is part of the retributive justice: we get what we deserve. In Richard III, it is very cruel for it introduces the notion of collective responsibility for England. The citizens (III, 2) and the crowd (III,7) are the representatives of the English people.

This guilt of England must be purged by a series of crimes, culminating in the scourge of Richard III. Richard is a sacrifice to redeem England from all her sins. He kills them all and then die: purgative and cleaning act for the whole nation. There are no innocents in Richard III, all are guilty.

  • Clarence : for killing the Young Prince Lancaster.
  • Edward : for killing the Young Lancaster too.
  • Buckingham : for helping Richard.
  • Anne : for letting Richard woo her.
  • Elizabeth : for letting Richard woo her daughter.

War brought about treason and corruption. Margaret seems to be a victim but she killed Rutland: she is also a child-murderer (this will later be used by Richard against her). She’s the only character that feel satisfied with the children’s death :

  • she is as bitter as Richard.
  • she wants the same evils inflicted on others as she has been inflicted, especially towards Elizabeth.
  • logic of retaliation (an eye for an eye).

She is a prophetess but her main goal is guided by revenge. Shakespeare makes her leave the play as soon as she has her revenge. She leaves and Richmond appears, bringing some more positive notes.

Richmond is sent by God: he is the savior figure who brings the Golden Age. On the contrary, Richard is the anti-Christ figure who inverts all Christian values. Richard is utterly evil. He is a figure of exorcism because he is so evil that he absorbs all the sins. His sins are not contagious: all the people influenced by him (Buckingham – Anne) will come to regret. Richard wants to personify evil on his own: he is a satanic figure and he is very proud of it :  » I am determined to be a villain » (I,1). Richard is a parodist and a role-player :

  • 1st role: with Clarence: the sympathizing brother
  • 2nd role: with Anne: the passionate lover asking for charity
  • 3rd role: with the two bishops: the devout
  • 4th role: with the two princes: the devoted uncle
  • 5th role: with Hastings: the victim

NB: « hypocrite » in Greek means actor. Richard can pretend to be everything to get what he wants. He does not have the value of truth. He has a gift with rhetorics and is at his best when wooing Anne: he replaces her lamentations with Courtly Love. [Stichomythia: in a dialogue, re-use of something said by the other protagonist]. He manages to upset the linguistic foundations of her discourse. Language is an efficient tool but also a shaper of reality. At the end, we do not know where reality is for Richard also manages to woo the audience: it is disturbing. The character of Richard makes the success of the play, because of :

  • skills
  • resources
  • wit and « alacrity of spirit »
  • discernment
  • courage
  • thinking on his feet

Richard is not likeable but the audience enjoys seeing him on stage. The spectator is ambivalent.

« Titania with Ass-headed Bottom » by Johann Heinrich Füssli (1793/4)


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.


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.

Rapport de faute d’orthographe

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