Lecture Notes on ShakespeareÕs A MidsummernightÕs Dream


Steven Marx

Cal Poly University, San Luis Obispo



I.      Introduction

A.    Transition: MND and RJ

1.     From Tragedy to Comedy--definitions of the two genres--the two dramatic masks

a.     Comic not tragic-- death and disorder lead to rebirth and ritual celebration of social integration and harmony

i.      Capulet's wedding turned to funeral vs.  "Stir up the Athenian youth to merriments/ Awake the pert and nimble spirit of mirth, turn melancholy forth to funerals/ The pale companion is not for our pomp" I,i, 12)

(1).   But close to demonic, like those in Capulet's tomb; the fairies could be gothic; return from the nightworld (sweet Puck or Robin Goodfellow also known as Hobgoblin--III,ii, 378)

b.     marriage orders love, passion, sex, unruly night dream madness--energies of the kind that  kill RJ

2.     Still the same act in Jaques pageant: woeful ballad to mistress' eyebrow; the theme still love; the tone now as comic as Jaques'; the principals--the lovers and Pyramis and Thisbe still youths, though older than fourteen--the sense of men and women playing roles and all the world as a stage  central

B.    Overview of lectures and treatment--Jaques sets agenda

1.     MND as a comedy of youth coming of age

2.     Analysis of plotlines and different worlds 

3.     Synthesis--how they blend throughout the play, but especially in the scenes of the lovers' awakening and of Bottom's dream in Acts III and IV

4.     MND as imagination--both in the themes and in the action depicted in Act V, most of which we'll see acted out on third day

II.     MND as youthwork

A.    first great comedy; an early bid for patronage

1.     written for and privately presented as wedding entertainment at Great House or Queen's Court

B.    childhood and youth emphasized throughout the play

1.     the fairies;  the childishness of the clowns

a.     V, i, 123: he hath played on this prologue like a child on a recorder

2.     Hermia and Helena's schoolgirlhood

a.     ...O is all forgot/All school days, friendship, childhood innocence?/...we grew together/like to a double cherry.../And will you rend our ancient love asunder/ to join with men in scorning your poor friend?  (III,ii, 201-16)

3.     Generational conflict

a.     Egeus vs. Hermia; Pyramis vs. Parents; the conventions of love comedy--arbitrary tyranny of father; rebellion of children: I,i, 93: "You have her father's love, Demetrius;/ let me have Hermia's: do you marry him

C.    Coming of Age:  Passage from one age or stage to the next (Mead)--childhood to adulthood--(CONCEPT I) as central action of the plot

1.     interest to anthropologists, psychologists, literary critics--Sheehy's Passages--and especially to Shakespeare

2.     Nature of the Passage--familiar to you

a.     Family member to individual

b.     Non-sexual to sexual being--loss of innocence

c.     Non-productive to productive

d.     Irresponsible and unempowered to community position

e.     Generation  of offspring to generation of procreator; inheritor of culture to transmitter of culture

f.      For women in patriarchal society, change from father's family to husband's

3.     Difficulty of the Passage;  confusion of social category and  psychological identity;  --death and rebirth (Erikson)

4.     "Rites of passage" (initiations,etc.)-- three stages: separation, transition, reintegration (Van Gennep)

a.     separation: departure from place in social order--escape or exile

i.      leaving Capulet's house/ Theseus' Athens--  Dayworld of Civilization, Law, Order, Reason, Authority dominated by Age

b.     transition: to "Second world" outside social order and its meanings--

i.      place of darkness, confusion; beyond village; "liminal region";  wandering in  wilderness; vision quest; outward bound; wanderjahre; outside Athens' gates and law--I,i, 160-165

(1).   Night of RJ; world of irrationality, flux, unfathomability; dream; romantic love (Liebestod) 

(2).   Green World (Frye): Woods outside Athens; Arden in AYLI; Heath in Lear

(a).   "come away" from constriction of  court to the liberation and  of  a green world-- city to country; pastoral, wood, fairies

(3).   World of holiday vs. everyday (Barber)  

(a).   festivity; disguise; Saturnalian license; Carnivalesque.

(b).   World of Midsummer madness and Maying Festivals

(1).   Youth of the town going to woods to party, celebrate spring; frolic in the hay, bring in the May

(2).   Eastcheap  Tavern in IHIV

c.     reintegration: return to the court from the woods and ceremonial acceptance into community transformed, renamed, in new role--marriage and dance

i.      marriage vs.  romantic courtship; 

(1).   realistic, not idealized; acceptance of another person, not as extension or reflection of self; leading to procreation and not death; inclusive and incorporated into community

5.     Plot or action of much Shakespearean  Comedy  based on this  three staged rite of passage; "U shaped" plot ending with marriage

a.     fulfills the basic pattern that Puck mentions in III, ii, 458 : And the country proverb known/ That everyman should take his own/ In your waking shall be shown/Jack shall have Jill/ nought shall go ill...

b.     marriage as the fundamental social bond; the one that orders love, passion, sex, unruly night dream madness--energies of the kind that  kill RJ

i.      Comic not tragic--passage follows death and disorder with rebirth and ritual celebration of social integration and harmony

(1).   "Stir up the Athenian youth to merriments/ Awake the pert and nimble spirit of mirth, turn melancholy forth to funerals/ The pale companion is not for our pomp" I,i, 12)

(a).   But close to demonic, like those in Capulet's tomb; the fairies could be gothic; return from the nightworld (sweet Puck or Robin Goodfellow also known as Hobgoblin--III,ii, 378)

III.    Analysis of subplots

A.    Transition:

1.     pattern sounds simple, but isn't simple to follow this play; its deliberate complexity and obfuscation.  Help with reading by untangling the plotlines

2.     Contrast to difficulties of language encountered in RJ, where there are no subplots

B.    Distinguish six plotlines--with their separate levels of reality, communities of characters, locales and time schemes, and styles of expression

1.     Palace  of Theseus--Power 

a.     Tell Theseus, Hippolyta background and plot

b.     orderly, civilized world of everyday--the court.  Theseus called "the mighty conqueror"--having subdued many enemies, including Amazons and their queen Hippolyta,  and calls himself man of "cool reason."  Patriarchal world of fathers, like Egeus, and political rule-- authoritarian, violent, powerful, but flawed--I, i, 111-114

c.     waiting for wedding feast and consummation of marriage in bed after midnight; April 29-May 1 when Midsummer Maying festival is concluded.  Frames other actions; and returns  at IV,i with release from enchantment;

d.     Style of language--always revealing in Shakespeare:  straightforward, stately blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter)

2.     World of Lysander, Demetrius, Helena, Hermia-- Romantic Love

a.     Tell story of their plot--male-female struggle

b.     Natural rather than courtly, urban setting--Green World of Romance, Passion, Fatal Attraction, Moonlight, Moonstruck-- turbulence, instability and confusion--perceptual, emotional, linguistic, identity. Behavior varies from slightly strange to outright mad, but remains within the range of the real;  attributable to adolescence and love--rapid shifts of intense emotion ("falling" in and out); people losing track of where they are; consumed by jealousy, acting foolish, talking funny. "Wood within wood" II,i, 192--triple pun

c.     Language corresponds: Petrarchan, i.e. emotionally intense, overblown, decorative and rhetorical, full of oxymora and  rhymed couplets

3.     World of the Fairies--Spirits

a.     Explain and paraphrase their story and action

b.     world of "unreal" fantasy creatures, wholly removed from everyday world who disappear with the dawn of day;  like lovers,  inhabit Green world and night,  but not governed by time and space, travelling the world over in minutes; godlike spirits (daemons) connected with damning and blessing forces behind nature; cause impossible transformations; world of folk superstition, fairytale, mythology, religion, dream and unconscious

i.      Two divisions appropriate to class--English folklore(Puck, etc.) Ovidian fantasy (Titania, Oberon)

c.     language of this world: II,i, 2. Monometer, dimeter, trimeter. Rich imagery and sound; pure lyricism, music and dance. Poetry as magic, making us believe in the unreal; bringing the moon indoors; inspiring fanciful productions

i.      Dance and music--Lullaby:II, ii,i--with Mendelssohn Music;  Samuel Barber's opera; Brook's acrobats

4.     World of the Peter Quince, Nick Bottom, Snug, Flute, Snout and Starvling--the lower class

a.     sublime to ridiculous: from airy/fairy dream to the Bottom; material base; ass-end of the world; artisans, manual workers--"hard-handed men which never laboured in their minds"(V,i, 72-3),  rude mechanicals, hempen homespuns

b.     Tell their story: who they are; why they present; their participation out  of duty and fear of nobility;  hope to make pension and to ingratiate the nobility for their own survival;  the three stages of their appearance: casting, rehearsal, performance; interlude of Bottom's Dream--discuss later

c.     Their style of language: inelegant and awkward prose (I, ii, 97-109)

d.     Despite their earthbound natures, they too create illusions--and with their play produce yet another level of reality with its own plot and characters.

5.     World of Pyramis and Thisbe--literature and drama

a.     Tell the story of Pyramis and Thisbe?

b.     barely perceptible and creaky; poorly constructed; illusion flawed.   

c.     author and players self-parody--characters resemble principals of MND like Egeus and Lysander and Hermia, or Titania's moon,  also like Shakespeare's previous creations, Romeo and Juliet.

6.     World of audience on stage

a.     least real world of Pyramis and Thisbe generates most real: Theseus, Hippolyta, Egeus, the lovers, the spirits all joined as an audience watching, laughing at, and questioning the reality of a play

b.     The representation of the audience in act V is itself multileveled. 

i.      first is Theseus and his court watching the mechanicals

(1).   That representation must have been an especially vivid mirror for the orginal audience of MND who, as mentioned, saw it as real wedding entertainment at court or at the house of a great noble on Midsummer's night                                                      

ii.     second is the audience who remains after mechanicals' play is over and  the court have gone to bed.  This is the audience addressed by Puck with his broom, sweeping the cobwebs behind the doors in Theseus' castle and at the same time sweeping the stage at the end of the production fo MND: "Give me your hands if we be friends/ And Robin shall restore amends." 

(1).   not only the private audience at the initial performance, but the public audience at the Globe who saw later productions of the play as it was repeated in repertory

(2).   The audiences of later generations,  who see MND first as an ancient classic they must study for credit and who then become enchanted by its magic

IV.   Synthesis of subplots

A.    Shakespeare's complexity: parallel actions, multiple plots and plays within plays

1.     AYLI, IHIV, Lear, AC, Tempest:  actor/playwright/director figures

B.    Functions of the multiple plot

1.     Increase work's depth and scope, making it a more accurate imitation of reality

2.     Teach us about levels of reality,  alternate realities and the constructed nature of any reality

3.     Provide dancelike aesthetic symmetry; shaping fantasy

4.     Stimulate creative critical response--encouraging "imagination to amend them" (in Theseus' comment about audience response to theatre): exploration, emphasis, universalization; analysis of similarities and differences

C.    How MND's plotlines come together--in the liminal world of the woods

1.     By confusion: leaving characters and audience  disoriented--as if dreaming, drugged or lost in the woods

a.     Mistakes of perception and purpose

i.      Accidental--natural

(1).   Demetrius shifting affection from Helena to Hermia; Egeus mistaking proper son-in-law; Puck's confusion (p. 91); Thisbe's mistake (p. 114); attempts to clarify confusion failing--e.g. Oberon and Demetrius

ii.     Devised--magical

(1).   Titania-Bottom; four lovers--mistaken identity of others and self

iii.    Theatrical/linguistic--mixing roles and players; stage and world; linguistic and genre confusion--comical tragedy; literal and figurative

(1).   real moon shining in at casement--III,i,45

(2).   Puck watching lovers as a comedy III,i, 86

(3).   players and audience breaking frames and vying for the spotlight--as in a real theatre --V,i

b.     shifts of tone

i.      e.g. the four lovers, who are one minute pathetic, the next sardonic, the next farcical(III,ii,122-144); 

ii.     Titania, who is one moment a regal empress and the next a nymphomaniac--suggestive of love itself as exalted and bestial--IV,i, 1-5; 42-47

c.     fairies, princes, and clowns interacting in decorum-violating ways

d.     waking and sleeping

i.      people on stage going to sleep, sleeping, waking up; moving from one world to another, not knowling what is dream and what is actual IV, 79 and 149

e.     reason and lunacy

i.      romantic infatuation--many loves; fidelity and jealousy; falling in love as disorientation--oxymoron of sensation and affection; love as hate; perceptual distortions of paranoia (p.87); friendship turning to hatred

ii.     magic spells

f.      blending of the several levels, intermixing of plotlines we took pains to distinguish yesterday

i.      audience of Pyramis and Thisbe merging into audience of MND

ii.     Pyramis and Thisbe blending into Lysander, Hermia, etc.

iii.    The double couple love intrigues of Titania and Oberon blending with both Theseus and Hippolyta,  and  the four lovers

2.     By clarification--Awakenings

a.     convergence of chaotic action on orderly conclusion 

i.      the wedding celebration--marriages, feast, dance, the presentation of the play, and various ritual blessings

b.     generations and classes reconciled

c.     the couples get over their differences

d.     perceptions unclouded

i.      spells lifted

ii.     awakening from sleep; cf. "Revels ended" and Platonic awakening

3.     Sequence of stages from confusion to clarification

a.     natural madness, delusion not aware it is deluded 

b.     magic enchantment

c.     awareness of incomprehensibility

d.     disenchantment, greater understanding

e.     transformation of the experience into publicly held intersubjective illusion of art

D.    The process in action--examples from the text

1.     Lovers 

a.     in the woods to escape Athens and work out their mixed up and arbitrary and changing affections

b.     they are enchanted to simply push the confusion further and make them fully unconscious of what they were only partly unconscious of before;

c.     they are  released

d.     orient themselves by confirming their experiences with one another in tale-telling (IV, i, 188-202)

2.     Bottom  

a.     transformed by play in woods to Pyramus, the truest horse and great lover (III, i, 78-160)

b.     by Puck to magic ass and lover of Titania

c.     then disenchanted and cherishing memory (IV, i, 1-48),

d.     and planning to turn it to ballad with Peter Quince to incorporate into the play (IV, i, 203-222)

3.     Titania--transformation from shrew to obedient wife

E.    The process as ritual pattern of passage, initiation, coming of age

V.    Reflection--Discursive

A.    Transition--Act V as commentary on I-IV

1.     With this ending of Act IV, we've come to the end of the dramatic progression;  the midsummer madness of the night and the dream is over; the long-awaited day has come;  the action is complete,  the problems are solved.  Act V is a kind of reflection of the first four acts, a kind of meta-MND. (V, i,32 ff. is an almost literal retake of I,i, 1-20) That reflection is both discursive--in Theseus'  dialogue with Hippolyta that opens the act,  and dramatic --in the artisans' "play within the play" and the audience's  commentary on it. 

B.    Theseus' sceptical analysis of imagination

1.     Read  speech with students

2.     Paraphrase

a.     In his reflection upon what the lovers have reported, Theseus perceptively divides their  midsummernight's symptoms into those of the lunatic (remember Moonstruck) the lover and the poet.  These correspond roughly to the sources of confusion we have observed earlier--dreams, delusions, magic, spirits,  love, lyricism, and music. Being a  rigorous thinker, he goes one step further, searching for what element they share in common and discovering it in Imagination This concept of Imagination (CONCEPT II) is in some sense synonymous with the MND; it is the principle of the green world to which Theseus, as the King, the representative of the non green world, must stand opposed.

3.     Theseus as rationalist sceptic

a.     "never believe antique fables or fairy toys." (V, i, 2-3)-- love, madness, superstition, religion, poetry as delusions of dream; what "Cool Reason" comprehends; Cartesian rationalist wearing square hat--Bacon; scientific revolution; the moon and Galileo.

b.     How Puck demystifies himself and becomes only projection: II,i, 48

c.     techie vs. fuzzie

C.    limitations of Theseus' vision 

1.     Hippolyta's answer: it's more than pure illusion when experience by several; communal fantasy (such as theatre) becomes the marvelous and wonderful

a.     "...The story of the night told over/

and all their minds transfigured so together

More witnesseth than fancy's images,

and grows to something of great constancy

But howsoever strange and admirable

b.     "Something of great constancy" is name for MND itself; just performed in Paso Robles; title of book on the play

2.     the fairies are real;  after screwing it up at first, they straighten out the lovers; and of course the ending

3.     Lysander on reason, after he's just been bewitched: II, ii, 115

D.    The opposite version of Theseus' speech--Imagination as creative power; lunatic, lover and poet as positive models

1.     Pico; Renaissance Neoplatonism; the visible world as symbols of transcendant, spiritual, higher reality; dream more true than waking world; Apuleius and Isis; transformation and initiation; III,i, 160: "I will purge thy mortal grossness so/ That thou shalt like an airy spirit go."

2.     The bible as mystical text rather than superstition; Bottom's dream(IV,ii, 210) and Corinthians (Kermode); symbol of awakening and enlightenment--Plato's cave, Buddhism

3.     romantic intimations of immortality; the poet's eye in a fine frenzy rolling; poetry, love, madness and vision--RJ; Wordsworth, Coleridge's Kubla Khan--poet as prophet: Moses, Paul, Dante, Milton, Blake

E.    Shakespeare's view balancing the two versions of Theseus' speech, scepticism and idealism

1.     at end of his first great  comedy, and having finished his first great tragedy, reflecting on his art,  as literary critic and philosopher

2.     Tempest the next time he considers artist's role in such detail

3.     In theory--

a.     drama can wake us from deluded dreams; a rite of passage; a revelation of delusion; a disenchantment

b.     world as illusory; multiple realities; creative aspect of perception--apprehend and comprehend; dreaming and art; life as a dream--cf. Nietzsche; Apollonian dream;

4.     In action--  the rest of act V


....next lecture

VI.   Reflection--In Performance:"Pyramis" and MND

A.    V, i, 28-364

1.     Theseus:





Hermia [co-director]:

Helena [co-director]:

Bottom the Weaver:

Quince the Carpenter:

Snug the Joiner:

Flute the Bellows Mender:

Snout the Tinker:

Starvling the Tailor:

B.    Shakespeare continues to disenchant and enlighten us about the creation of illusion by giving us a  backstage view of  his own line of work.  In this scene, Imagination is dramatized not as inspiration, infatuation or magic but as the gritty material labor of show business.

1.     motivations: tribute, love, hope of payment, ego, fun, tribute to sovereign

2.     theatrical process: casting, rehearsal, performance

3.     difficulties: great effort, labor, toil, stretched, conned in cruel pain; bringing the moonlight indoors; dangers of being tongue-tied

4.     The audience

a.     their judgement and power--critics and patrons: Theseus, Lysander, Demetrius, Hippolyta--generosity and inconsideration

b.     behavior at performance--self infatuated cleverness; competition with players

5.     The value of theatre

a.     making time go by; pure entertainment or filler; total garbage like I find watching TV; issue of theatre in Elizabethan England

C.    Rather than showing us some virtuosi of theatrical enchantment, he shows us incompetents at the game.  Their antics parody and ridicule the poet's work of  imagination; but they also make Shakespeare's accomplishments shine brighter in contrast with their bumblings.   

1.     The quality of the text

a.     over bombastic and rhetorical and florid--hot ice

i.      like Shakespeare's contemporaries and his own earlier work

ii.     Apostrophe, oxymora, personification

b.     distorting language in search of rhymes and meter

2.     The quality of performance

a.     not making sense of text or communicating to audience--speech like tangled chain

b.     mixed up recitation--(192) both funny and suggestive

c.     taking wrong cue--moonshine (315)

D.    The players' hilarious errors and failures in creating illusion highlight assumptions and competencies we take for granted, invoking earlier themes of appearance, representation and reality

1.     players worry that audience won't be able to distinguish between art and life; therefore produce prologue (III, i, 18-23)

a.     they take illusions seriously like they take fairies and superstitions

b.     address danger of deception by literature and theatrics; the Don Quixote effect; also the lunacy of the lovers

2.     Humor of these paradoxes we are basically uneasy with

a.     Theseus jokingly and in another frame,  asks wall to break frame of illusion (189),  and Bottom breaks wall of his frame to answer him--incidentally remembering what he learned about cues in III,i

3.     Relation of language to reality--the notion of error; what do we know

a.     missed lines, making no sense and deeper sense--192; again lovers misperceptions

b.     unintentional puns; double meanings--203-205

i.      like lovers and others mistaking each other, making themselves interchangeable

c.     excessive demonstration of connection between signifier--i.e. sign, word or symbol-- and signified

i.      I man in the moon do seem to be

ii.     Failure of connection between signifier and signified; more Wall talks and acts the less wall-like he becomes

d.     success of communication depends on sympathy and good will  (111-112)

i.      e.g. learning foreign language from someone you're turned on by

E.    Similarity between Pyramis and MND (and RJ)

1.     "The best of this kind are but shadows, and the worst are no worse," according to Theseus, who refuses to catch the difference between Shakespeare and Quince.  But in another sense he's right.

2.     For the clumsy efforts of the tradesmen are so sincere and attractive, that like children in a grade school play, they validate the very project that they botch. And of course, both being the products of Shakespeare's imagination,  they entrance us as much as the fairies.

VII.  Review

A.    two major concepts we discussed in connection with MND, both linked to title: the first, The Rite of Passage through the Green World from Youth the Adulthood, the second  Imagination, the  force of representational and of dramatizing illusion.  Final question: is there a connection between these two?  One answer suggested by a return to Jaques speech on the ages  and Ralegh's poem, what is our life?  If we consider the metaphor that youth and maturity are roles, social roles that we act out on the stage of society, then we can imagine that in order to take on new roles, we need to do some changing of costume and makeup as well as some rehearsal outside of the view of the spectators before whom we are to perform.  Like the mechanicals in the woods, we retire to our Tiring Houses backstage to learn new parts; the green world is also a green room.

VIII. Transition to HIV

A.    used to many worlds; now we move out of those of dreamworlds of love and imagination to what some people regard the real worlds of history and social science


B.    political strategies of MND--cf. Montrose, "Shaping Fantasies" and Tennenhouse, "Strategies of State and Political Plays"

1.     play depicts conflict within ruling patriarchy between blood and law; between claims of fathers and children.  Only the monarch can resolve these competing claims.  This is Elizabeth's general strategy: promoting tensions between competing forces and then reconciling them.  Agency of resolution is misrule--the nightmare of breaking down hierarchy to authorize new form of political authority.  Art-imagination-carnival-erotics is agency of this breakdown--in the woods--and of its reconstitution--in the court performance. 


All this can be seen as analogous to the history plays