Nothing by Shakespeare before A Midsummer Night’s Dream is its equal and in some respects nothing by him afterwards surpasses it. It is his first undoubted masterpiece, with-out flaws, and one of his dozen or so plays of overwhelming originality and power.
—Harold Bloom, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is William Shakespeare’s first comic masterpiece and remains one his most beloved and performed plays. It seems reasonable to claim that on any fine night during the summer at an outdoor theater somewhere in the world an audience is being treated to the magic of the play. It is easy, however, to overlook through familiarity what a radically original and experimental play this is. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the triumph of Shakespeare’s early play-writing career, a drama of such marked inventiveness and visionary reach that its first audiences must have only marveled at what could possibly come next from this extraordinary playwright. In it Shakespeare changed the paradigm of stage comedy that he had inherited from the Greeks and the Romans by dizzyingly multiplying his plot lines and by bringing the irrational and absurd illusions of romantic love center stage. He established human passion and gender relations as comedy’s prime subject, transforming such fundamental concepts as love, courtship, and marriage that have persisted in our culture ever since. If that is not enough A Midsummer Night’s Dream makes use of its romantic intrigue, supernatural setting, and rustic foolery to pose essential questions about the relationship between art and life, appearance and reality, truth and illusion, dreams and the waking world that anticipate the self-referential agenda of such avant-garde, metadramatists as Luigi Pirandello, Bertolt Brecht, and Tom Stoppard. A Midsummer Night’s Dream represents a kind of declaration of liberation for the stage, in which, after its example, nothing seems either off limits or impossible. In the play Theseus, the duke of Athens, after hearing the lovers’ strange story of what happened to them in the forest famously interprets their incredible account by linking the lovers with the lunatic and the poet:
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold,
That is the madman: the lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt:
The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven,
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
Such tricks hath strong imagination,
That if it would but apprehend some joy,
It comprehends some bringer of that joy:
Or, in the night, imagining some fear,
How easy is a bush suppos’d a bear!
A Midsummer Night’s Dream similarly gives a “local habitation and a name” on stage for what madness, love, and the poet’s imagination can conjure.
Shakespeare first made his theatrical reputation in the early 1590s with his Henry VI plays, with the historical chronicle genre that he pioneered. His early tragedies—Titus Andronicus and Romeo and Juliet—and comedies—The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Taming of the Shrew, The Comedy of Errors, and Love’s Labour’s Lost—all show the playwright working within the dramatic conventions that he inherited from classical, medieval, and English folk sources. With A Midsummer Night’s Dream Shakespeare goes beyond imitation to discover a distinctive voice and manner that would add a new dramatic species. After A Midsummer Night’s Dream there was Old Comedy, New Comedy, and now Shakespearean comedy, a synthesis of both. To explain the origin and manner of A Midsummer Night’s Dream scholars have long relied on a speculative story so apt and evocative that it must be believed, even though there is no hard evidence to support it. Thought to have been written in the winter of 1593–94 to be performed at an aristocratic wedding attended by Queen Elizabeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream therefore resembles the Renaissance masque, a fanciful mixture of allegorical and mythological enactments, music, dance, elegant costumes, and elaborate theatrical effects to entertain at banquets celebrating betrothals, weddings, and seasonal festivals such as May Day and Twelfth Night. In the words of Theseus at his own nuptial fete, the masque served “To wear away this long age of three hours / Between our after-supper and bed-time.” We do know from the title page of its initial publication in the First Quarto of 1600 that the play “hath been sundry times publikely acted” by Shakespeare’s company, but the notion that it had served as a wedding entertainment establishes the delightful fun-house mirroring of an actual wed-ding party first watching a play that included a wedding party watching a play. Such an appropriate scrambling of reality and illusion reflects the source of the humor and wonder of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of just three plays out of Shakespeare’s 39 (the other two are Love’s Labour’s Lost and The Tempest) for which the play-wright did not rely on a central primary source. Instead Shakespeare assembled elements from classical sources, romantic narratives, and English folk materials, along with details of ordinary Elizabethan life to juggle and juxtapose four different imaginative realms, each with its own distinctive social and literary conventions and language. Each is linked by analogy to the theme of love and its obstacles. The first is the classically derived court world of Theseus, duke of Athens, who has first conquered Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons, then won her heart, and now eagerly (and impatiently) anticipates their wedding. Their impending nuptials prompt the arrival of emissaries from the natural world, the king and queen of the fairies—Oberon and Titania—to bless their union, as well as a collection of “rude mechanicals”—Bottom, Quince, Flute, Starveling, Snout, and Snug—to devise a theatrical performance as entertainment at the Duke’s wedding celebration. To the world of the Athenian court, the alternate supernatural court world of the fairies, and the realistic sphere of the Athenian artisans, Shakespeare overlaps a fourth center of interest in the young lovers Hermia, Helena, Lysander, and Demetrius. Shakespeare mixes the dignified blank verse of Theseus and Hippolyta with the rhymed iambic speeches of the lovers, the rhymed tetrameter of the fairies, and the wonder-fully earthy prose of the rustics into a virtuoso’s performance of polyphonic verbal effects, the greatest Shakespeare, or any other dramatist, had yet sup-plied for the stage.
The complications commence when Hermia’s father, Egeus, objects to his daughter’s unsanctioned preference for Lysander over Demetrius, whom Egeus has selected for her. Egeus invokes Athenian law mandating death or celibacy for a maid’s refusal to abide by parental authority in the choice of a mate. Parental objection to the choice of young lovers was a standard plot device of Greek New Comedy and the Roman comedies of Plautus and Terence that Shakespeare inherited. To the obstacles placed in the lovers’ paths Shakespeare adds his own variation of the earlier Aristophanic Old Comedy’s break with the normalcy of everyday life by having his lovers escape into the forest. Critic Northrup Frye has called this symbolic setting of magical regeneration and vitality the “green world.” Here the lovers are tested and allowed the freedom and new possibilities to gain fulfillment and harmony denied them in the civilized world, in which duty dominates desire and obligation to parental authority and the law overrules self-interest and the heart’s promptings. Critic C. L. Barber has identified in such a departure from the norm a “Saturnalian Pattern” in Shakespearean comedy in which the lovers’ exile from the civilized to the primitive supplies the festive release that characterized the earliest forms of comic drama. Barber argues:
Once Shakespeare finds his own distinctive voice, he is more Aristophanic than any other great English dramatist, despite the fact that the accepted educated models and theories when he started to write were Terentian and Plautine. The Old Comedy cast of his work results from his participation in native saturnalian traditions of the popular theater and the popular holidays. . . . He used the resources of a sophisticated theater to express, in his idyllic comedies and in his clowns’ ironic misrule, the experience of moving to humorous understanding through saturnalian release.
Named for the summer solstice festival, when it was said that a maid could glimpse the man she would marry, A Midsummer Night’s Dream celebrates access to the uncanny and the breakup of all normal rules and social barriers to display human nature in the grips of elemental passions and the subconscious. The lovers in their moonlit, natural setting, at the mercy of the fairies, act out their deepest desires and hostilities in a full display of the power and absurdity of love both to change reality and to redeem it.
Hermia elopes with Lysander, pursued by Demetrius, who in turn is followed by Helena, whom he spurns. They enter a supernatural realm also beset by marital discord, jealousy, and rivalry. Oberon commands his servant Puck to place the juice of a flower once hit by Cupid’s dart in the eyes of the sleeping Titania to cause her to fall in love with the first creature she sees on awakening to help gain for Oberon the changeling boy Titania has refused to yield to him. Oberon, pitying Helena her rejection by Demetrius, also orders Puck to place some of the drops in Demetrius’s eyes so that he will be charmed into love with the woman who dotes on him. Instead Puck comes upon Lysander and Hermia as they sleep, mistakes Lysander for Demetrius, and pours the charm into the wrong eyes so that Lysander falls in love with Helena when she wakes him. Meanwhile Bottom and his companions have retreated to the woods to rehearse a dramatization of the mythological story of Pyramus and Thisbe, another set of star-crossed lovers. Puck gives the exuberant Bottom the head of an ass, and he becomes the first thing the charmed Titania sees on waking. Through the agency of the change of location from court to forest and from daylight to moonlight, with its attendant capacity for magical transformation, the play mounts a witty and uproarious display of the irrationality of love and its victims who see the world through the distorting lens of desire, in which certainty of affection is fleeting and a lover with the head of an ass can cause a queen to forgo her senses and her dignity. As Bottom aptly observes, “reason and love keep little company together now-a-days.” From the perspectives of the fairies the lovers’ absolute claims and earnest rationalizations of such a will-of-the-wisp as love makes them absurd. The tangled mixture of passion, jealousy, rancor, and violence that beset the young lovers after Puck imperfectly corrects his mistake, causing both Lysander and Demetrius to pursue the once spurned Helena, more than justifies Puck’s observation, “Lord, what fools these mortals be!”
By act 4 day returns, and the disorder of the night proves as fleeting and as insubstantial as a dream. After the four lovers are awakened by Theseus, Hippolyta, and Egeus, who are hunting in the woods, Lysander again loves Hermia, and Demetrius, still under the power of the potion, gives up his claim to her in favor of Helena. Theseus overrules Egeus’s objections and his own former strict adherence to Athenian law and gives both couples permission to marry that day, along with himself and Hippolyta. Having gained the change-ling boy from Titania, Oberon releases her from her spell. Puck removes the donkey’s head from Bottom, who awakes to wonder at his strange dream:
I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream, past the wit of man to say what dream it was. Man is but an ass, if he go about to expound this dream. . . . I will get Peter Quince to write a ballad of this dream. It shall be call’d “Bottom’s Dream,” because it hath no bottom.
The only mortal allowed to see the fairies, Bottom is also the only character not threatened or diminished by the alternative fantasy realm he passes through. He freely accepts what he does not understand, considering it more suitable for the delight of art in a future ballad than to be analyzed or reduced by reason. Bottom coexists easily and honestly in the dual world of reality and illusion, maintaining his core identity and integrity even through his trans-formation, from man to ass, to fairy queen’s paramour, to ordinary man again. Called by Harold Bloom “Shakespeare’s most engaging character before Falstaff,” Bottom is the play’s human anchor and affirmation of the joyful acceptance of all the contradictions that the play has sent his way.
With the reconciliation of Oberon and Titania, Bottom’s reunion with his colleagues, and three Athenian weddings, the plot complications are all happily resolved, and act 5 shifts the emphasis from the potentially destructive vagaries of love to a celebration of marriage to crown and contain human desire. Shakespeare’s final sleight of hand and delightful invention, however, is the play within the play, the “tedious and brief” and “very tragical mirth” of the performance of Pyramus and Thisbe by Bottom and his players. In a drama fueled by the complications between appearance and reality this hilariously incompetent burlesque by the play’s rustic clowns impersonating tragic lovers appropriately comments on the play that has preceded it. The drama of Pyramus and Thisbe involves another set of lovers who face parental objections and similarly seek relief in nature, but their adventure goes tragically awry. However, just as Hermia, Lysander, Helena, and Demetrius avoid through the stage-managing of the fairies a potentially tragic fate from their ordeal in the wood, so is the tragic fate of Pyramus and Thisbe transformed to comedy by the ineptitude of Bottom’s company. The play within the play becomes a pointed microcosm for A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a whole in its conversion of potential tragedy to curative comedy. The newlyweds, who mock the absurdity of Pyramus and Thisbe, fail to make the connection with their own absurd encounter with love and their chance rescue from its anguish, but the actual audience should not. In Shakespeare’s comprehensive comic vision we both laugh at the ridiculousness of others while recognizing ourselves in their dilemmas. Shakespeare’s final point about the inseparability of reality and illusion is scored by having the fairy world coexist with the Athenian court at the play’s conclusion, decreasing the gap between fact and fancy and invading actuality itself by giving the final words to Puck, who addresses the audience directly:
If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumb’red here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream.
Like the newlyweds who view a drama that calls attention to its illusion and its “tragical mirth,” the audience is here reminded of the similar blending of reality and dream, the comic and the tragic in the world beyond the stage. Puck serves as Shakespeare’s magician’s assistant, demonstrating that substance and shadow on stage replicate both the illusion of the dramatist’s art and the essence of human life in our own continual interplay of reality, dreams, and desire.