Michael Delahoyde, PhD

Professor of English

A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Introduction

A Midsummer Night’s Dream has traditionally been considered something of an Ars Poetica — where Shakespeare sets forth his notion of the art of poetry — though other than Stanley Wells saying it’s a play about the power of imagination (Wells 64), no one specifies what that notion is. The seemingly and dismissive throwaway title may be deceptive: “the more Shakespeare appears to drift off into fantasy, the more frank he is being” (Beauclerk 268).

Atypically, no single literary or dramatic source exists for this one (like The Tempest and Love’s Labor’s Lost); and plotting is usually not considered Shakespeare’s forte. So Samuel Pepys called it “The most insipid ridiculous play that I ever saw” (qtd. in Goddard, I 77). But that’s not a majority opinion. Although repeating the notion that “Inventing plot was not a Shakespearean gift” (Bloom 149), Harold Bloom nevertheless declares the play Shakespeare’s “first undoubted masterwork, without flaw, and one of his dozen or so plays of overwhelming originality and power” (Bloom 148).

“Midsummer Night” is traditionally June 23/24, a festival of partying and dancing and superstitions regarding enchantment and witchcraft, when midsummer madness, probably associated with the heat, brings about an alternate state of mind “when people are most apt to imagine fantastic experiences” (Asimov 17; cf. Garber 218). There’s a casual throwaway quality in the title — this could be any night in midsummer, and anyone’s dream. A reference to the rites of May suggests May Day, so (as with Twelfth Night) who knows when this is taking place? One attempt to date the play notes that there was a new moon on May Day in 1573 (Ogburn and Ogburn 577). Suffice it to say that the state of mind suggested is in line with the unrealistic dreamlike action of a play that tells us “that this world of sense in which we live is but the surface of a vaster unseen world by which the actions of men are affected or overruled” (Goddard, I 74). The moon is mentioned often, appropriate to madness also. The action is framed as a four-day wait for the noble wedding, so the play itself in a kind of diversion. But there are many more contradictions and inconsistencies in time (Smidt 129-136).

June 24 — 624 — is a recurring number in Shakespeare and in Oxfordian studies: the number of letters in Edward de Vere, backwards in Earl of Oxford, encrypted in the dedication page to the Sonnets, and throughout the First Folio and plays. It’s supposedly the day Oxford died in 1604. Not everyone believes in the coincidence….

A Midsummer Night’s Dream contains Shakespeare’s most direct tribute to Queen Elizabeth (II.i.155ff). Ending in three weddings and a reconciliation, it also may have been an epithalamium presented for a particular wedding; it is more appropriate for a marriage celebration than the other comedies. And the traditional mid-1590s dating of the work matches well with the wedding of Oxford’s daughter Elizabeth with the Earl of Derby, one of the very few aristocratic weddings during those middle years of the decade (Clark 613; Ogburn and Ogburn 576, 595, 981; Farina 54). Indeed, their course of true love had not run smoothly. Others have recently insisted on the relevance of the 1594 wedding of Sir Thomas Heneage and Mary Browne Wriothesley when these “rites of May” united two rival families (Anderson 276). A hidden moral application may have been an urging for young Southampton to consider marrying into the Cecil clan (Anderson 276-277), and maybe the thing was tinkered with for the Derby/Vere wedding, with the Earl now inhabiting the Egeus character (Anderson 287). Thus, Lysander/Hermia = Derby and Elizabeth Vere; Demetrius = Southampton (Anderson 287-88); Egeus supporting Demetrius is the poet praising the Fair Youth in the Sonnets (Anderson 288); and Helena is Elizabeth Vernon, with Demetrius still under a love spell at the end of the play that perhaps might still be broken (Anderson 298). Or maybe such occasionality is too quirky and risky: consider the touchy aspects for such a setting. Clark insists an original version of the play was written in the early 1580s concerning the courtship between Queen Elizabeth and Alençon (Clark 613-626). Earl Showerman has advanced the Alençon allegory. Like Clark, the elder Ogburns acknowledge a hypothetical December 1584 performance under the name A Pastorall of Phillyda and Choryn (Ogburn and Ogburn 409, 575) but also detect evidence of a “sketchy version” from the early-1570s (Ogburn and Ogburn 66), partly since May Day and a new moon coincided in 1573 (Ogburn and Ogburn 577). Meres cites the play in 1598, and it play was registered in October 1600.

For Prince Tudor material, see the elder Ogburns (esp. 595, 826).

With The Two Noble Kinsmen, Shakespeare expanded Chaucer’s The Knight’s Tale, which begins with Theseus and the conquered Hippolyta returning to Athens. (Oxford purchased copies of Chaucer and Plutarch in 1569.) In 1566 existed a lost play titled Palamon and Arcite, attributed to Richard Edwards, but…. It was performed before Queen Elizabeth at Oxford University, with the Earl of Oxford, soon to graduate, present (Farina 55). In A Midsummer Night’s Dream no interruption of suppliant women takes place, but the anachronistic title Duke also derives from Chaucer. So too may these lines from The Tale of Sir Thopas: “Me dremed al this night, pardee, / An elf-queen shall my lemman be.”
For ass’s ears, see Apuleius’ The Golden Asse, translated into English in 1566 and dedicated to the Earl of Sussex, Oxford’s mentor. So some think this translation was accomplished by the same young writer responsible for the translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, where King Midas (famous for the “golden” touch) judges a musical competition in a way displeasing to a god and is cursed with ass’s ears.

The Four Levels of Action

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a kind of fugue with four voices” (Goddard, I 77).

1) Theseus and Hippolyta serve as a frame with a realistic, seemingly stable relationship, enveloping the action of court. A dream sense is mentioned but Theseus distrusts tricks of imagination, favoring a commonsense realist attitude. “The Theseus of the Dream appears to have retired from his womanizings into rational respectability, with its attendant moral obtuseness” (Bloom 154).

2) The wooing lovers are weak characters who easily blur together in their sameness: “they are apparently indistinguishable from one another” (Garber 225). They show the transitory inconstancy of love, and physically move us from court to country — a phenomenon that also has a psychological dimension: “wood” = mad. Here irrationality is associated with love. “Hermia has considerable more personality than Helena, while Lysander and Demetrius are interchangeable, a Shakespearean irony that suggests the arbitrariness of young love, from the perspective of everyone except the lover” (Bloom 153). Clark sees the Earl of Oxford and his Countess Anne in Demetrius and Helena (Clark 620) and Thomas Knyvet and Anne Vavasour in Lysander and Hermia (Clark 621), though I’m not sure they have that much particularity. The elder Ogburns pose an Oxford/Anne Cecil to Lysander/Hermia parallel (Ogurn and Ogburn 625). Farina thinks the couples represent William Stanley, Lord Derby and Elizabeth Vere, with Henry Percy, Earl of Nothumberland (whom Egeus/Burghley tried to match with his granddaughter Elizabeth) as Demetrius, and his eventual wife Dorothy Devereux as Helena (Farina 58-59).

3) The fairies influence love with their irrationality. Oberon and Titania’s relationship is in trouble, so everything else goes out of whack. The tragedies agree “that this world of sense in which we live is but the surface of a vaster unseen world by which the actions of men are affected or overruled” (Goddard, I 74), not just an apology for the amount of coincidence in plots (see The Tempest finally). There’s a sinister side to the fairies. Usually in production, the other fairies are played by children; so you see how horrible that world could be. In the early 1580s at least, “it was the fashion for poets to refer to Elizabeth and her maids as ‘nymphs and fairies'” (Ogburn and Ogburn 580).

4) The “mechanicals” are Athenian laborers — Bottom and company: “‘mechanical’ has the same meaning as the modern ‘mechanic'” (Garber 224). They provide the unintentional burlesque of a classical legend, not in blank verse. Illusion and reality are blurry here too as the mechanicals fear that their audience will be confused and unable to distinguish illusion from reality. The concern for the audience’s susceptibilities is funny and touching. Theseus’ ultra-rationalism may be parodied in the literalism of these blokes. And they give us truly delightful bad theatre.

The Romance Genre

The play can be classified as a romance, a genre involving much more than love. Medieval stories of knights and later novels such as The Bride of LammermoorWuthering HeightsThe Great Gatsby, and Lolita usually include the following features:

  • Love serves as much of the motivation (the initial set-up and conflict).
  • Characters are often idealized (as types; blurry, weak, young lovers).
  • Action takes place as ritualistic quest (captured in the titles of old soap operas Search for Tomorrow and Guiding Light), often obliquely having an erotic intensity. Idyllic wish-fulfilment seems involved.
  • Plot transitions are somewhat irrational.
  • Nostalgia for a golden age may be felt.
  • Setting is usually a fantastic marvelous world, having a childlike quality. (The move from court to country in the play is one of mind too — as shown in the “wood” pun.)
  • Atmosphere involves confusion, akin to sleep, madness, a dreamworld.

Indeed, the distinctive feature of romance is its resemblance to the dream state, whether this is manifested in a move out of the civilized world of the court, initiated by a knight dreaming by a well and waking to adventure, or resulting from chemical intoxicants as in one particular scene in The Great Gatsby.


A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act by Act

A Midsummer Night’s Dream Intro

A Midsummer Night’s Dream Act I

A Midsummer Night’s Dream Act II

A Midsummer Night’s Dream Act III

A Midsummer Night’s Dream Act IV

A Midsummer Night’s Dream Act V


Further Resources

Filmography

A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Vitagraph Studios, 1909. Silent, one reel (12 minutes). Shakespeare without all those annoying words. Watch it here.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Starring James Cagney, Joe E. Brown, Dick Powell. Warner Brothers Pictures, 1935. You want to send out positive vibes into the universe for the sake of your soul, so do not watch this movie. Mickey Rooney as Puck is less imp than demented chimp, and you’ll want to go back in time to kill him 150 ways. A fairy sequence is here.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Dir. Peter Hall. Starring Diana Rigg, Helen Mirren, Judy Dench, Ian Holm. BBC, 1968. The full film is online here.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Starring Helen Mirren (as Titania), Nigel Davenport. BBC, 1981. This may have the funniest depiction of the otherwise tedious lovers in the forest.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Starring Kevin Kline, Michelle Pfeiffer, Stanley Tucci. Fox Searchlight Pictures, 1999. Bottom is usually more salt-of-the-earth, but Kevin Kline looks enough like the Earl of Oxford to justify this casting. There are bicycles, Victrolas, and we’re told in the opening text that the bustle is in decline, and that it’s “the turn of the 19th century.” Name a year at the turn of the 19th century. How about 1801? They mean “turn of the 20th century”! What bonehead wrote this and what 23 boneheads let it slide? Anyway, Titania falls for Bottom here.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Shakespeare Retold. BBC Video, 2007. A modern adaptation with Imelda Staunton.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream. A full online production by the Palm Beach Shakespeare Festival, 2020.

Best Editions

Bevington, David, ed. The Complete Works of Shakespeare. 6th ed. Pearson Education Inc., 2009. 148-179.

Brooks Harold F., ed. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The Arden Shakespeare. 3rd Series. NY: Bloomsbury, 1979; rpt. 2013.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Verus Publishing, 2020.
Here.

Weller, Philip, ed. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Shakespeare Navigators. An annotated online edition.

Oxfordian Resources

Beauclerk, Charles. Shakespeare’s Lost Kingdom. NY: Grove Press, 2010. Esp. 200-207.

Berney, Charles V. “Midsummer Night’s Dream on Film: From Hollywood Extravaganza to British Opera.” Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter 37.1 (Spring 2001): 17, 23-24. Here.

Berney, Charles V. “Confidential Video Bard: Midsummer Night’s Dream Revisited.” Shakespeare Matters 1.4 (Summer 2002): 26-27.
Here.

Clark, Eva Turner. Hidden Allusions in Shakespeare’s Plays. 3rd ed. by Ruth Loyd Miller. Port Washington: Kennikat Press, 1974. 613-626.

Farina, William. De Vere as Shakespeare: An Oxfordian Reading of the Canon. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Co., 2006. 54-59.

Gilvary, Kevin. Dating Shakespeare’s Plays. Tunbridge Wells, UK: Parapress, 2010. 113-122.

Glaser, Bill. Letter: Midsummer Night’s Dream. Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter 58.1 (Winter 2022): 3. Here.

Ogburn, Charlton. The Mysterious William Shakespeare: The Myth & The Reality. 2nd ed. McLean, VA: EPM Publications, Inc., 1992.

Ogburn, Dorothy and Charlton Ogburn. This Star of England. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, Pub., 1952. 575-588.

Roe, Richard Paul. The Shakespeare Guide to Italy. NY: Harper, 2011. Chapter 8: 178-187.

Shield, H.S. “Names of the King and Queen in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Shakespeare Fellowship News-letter (English) (Spring 1956): 9. Here.

Showerman, Earl. “A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Shakespeare’s Aristophanic Comedy.” Brief Chronicles VI (2015): 107-136. Here.

Stritmatter, Roger. “On the Chronology and Performance Venue of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” The Oxfordian 9 (2006): 81-90. Here.

And Other General Resources

Goddard, Harold C. The Meaning of Shakespeare. Vol. 1. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1951. 74-80.

Smidt, Kristian. Unconformities in Shakespeare’s Early Comedies. NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1986. 120-140. Smidt finds numerous time discrepancies suggesting significant revision.

Shakespeare Authorship Organizations

The Shakespeare Oxford Fellowship. Browse, get hooked, become a member.

The De Vere Society. Our Oxfordian friends and collaborators across the pond.

The Shakespeare Authorship Roundtable. We consider all possible authors behind the “Shakespeare” name.