Reading Notes for Shakespeares
A Midsummernights Dream
Cal Poly University San Luis Obispo
- I,i [Attend to the "subscenes" marked by entrances and exits]
- Theseus is the mythological Greek hero who killed the
Minotaur, founded the city of Athens, raped or seduced many women, and
defeated the Amazons, a tribe of women warriors who had hitherto ruled
the land. Hippolyta was their queen.
- The opening insists on the festive tone of the play and
its overall celebration of romance and marriage, but notice the undertones.
- who and what are set in conflict here? Watch these opposing
forces shape the plot, character development, and abstract theme as the
- how are the conflicts and characters shown to be both
serious and funny?
- what's relation between this subscene and the previous
- what's the effect of the large exit on the audience?
on the characters who remain? i.e. on their language and movements?
- how is love defined and represented here--in poetic image,
sound of language, intellectual analysis, and dramatic situation. Compare
it to views of love in the first two subscenes.
- in what ways is Lysander's plan appropriate?
- what happens to the tone when Helena enters; many of
Shakespeare's plays have been set to music (including this one--the Benjamin
Britten version is available on video in LRC). Can you imagine a musical
transition at this point? Or a change in lighting?
- how are the earlier representations of love--Theseus',
Egeus', Lysander's and Hermia's-- expanded and challenged by Helena's
perspective? How has the emergence of sexual love affected friendship
as well as parental love? By what means does love wreak havoc? In what
sense does it cause a fall from paradise and turn heaven into hell (205-207)?
- are there subscenes here?
- what happens to the story line between scene i and ii?
What are some of the gaps or walls here? How do we as audience overcome
them? What helps are provided by the script? What does it feel like to be
puzzled or mystified and then to "get it"? Is our being "out of it" or "with
it" due to us or to the play?
- How are the working stiffs different from the lords and
ladies? what makes us laugh at them? Are there ways that the two social
groups are also similar? Are there any connections between the play they
are casting and the action and themes of the previous scene?
- How do the actors' personalities vary? Describe and account
for Bottom's. What are some of the problems they face, both real and imagined?
- Does their departure for the woods a mile outside the town
suggest a connection with the departure of the lovers? You may want to skip
ahead to Theseus' speech (V, i, 2-22) for an explicit statement of the play's
repeated linkage of fantasy, madness, love and poetry, keeping in mind that
"poet" was also a word for playwright.
- Acts II-IV take place in the wood; notice the properties
of this "green world" and the effect of being there on the characters from
- what devices make this introduction succeed at creating
a fantasy we are willing to believe in?
- Puck begins the obscure story of the marital squabble
between the Queen and King of the fairies, Titania and Oberon. He wants
and is jealous of the "lovely boy" whom she keeps for a page. Montrose's
article, on reserve, provides a suggestive interpretation of the strange
- Puck, a spirit of mischief and confusion in peasant mythology,
is jester to Oberon. What's his relation to the comedy we laugh at?
- lines 60-187
- after mutual accusations of jealousy, blame for the disastrous
consequences of their conflict, and sexual infidelity (with Theseus and
Hippolyta) Titania and Oberon fill in more details: the boy is son of
her servant-playmate who died in childbirth. Oberon will enchant Titania
by painting her eyelids with juice from a pansy. The juice will make her
fall in love with the next live creature she sees. This power comes from
having been pierced by an arrow that Cupid once shot at a virgin mermaid
who had the power to calm the sea. He had fallen in love with her but
missed his target.
- lines 188-244
- what's connection between Helena-Demetrius relationship
portrayed here and other male-female relationships shown so far? What
does it reveal about love and power, love and lunacy, love and Puck's
spirit of mischief and confusion?
- lines 245-268
- why does Oberon ask Puck to also smear the juice on Demetrius?
Is there a connection between him and other authority figures in the play?
- notice the tone sequence of five subscenes: innocent lullaby
purging threats followed by sinister poisoning of helpless sleepers repeated
twice, followed by loud chaotic awakenings
- two new themes: the passage between sleeping and waking
(what's real?) and the juxtaposition of delicate and brutish aspects of
- significances of parallels between the ways the sleepers
go to bed and between how they are drugged?
- Check Lysander's absurd drug induced appeal to reason 114-122.
How does it serve as a commentary on Helena's various undrugged rationalizations
of her own behavior? Is there a connection between our laughter at these
characters, under the influence of powers they don't understand, and our
laughter at the "hard-handed" craftsmen?
- what's the direction of movement of Act II? Do you see
an overall pattern of the plot taking shape? What might you expect to take
place in Act III, knowing the play has five acts altogether?
- lines 1-120
- any significance in Titania being on stage asleep while
the clowns rehearse? between sleep and rehearsal?
- implications of the equivalencies in Quince's opening
directions? of make believe in general?
- what's relation between Bottom's (and Snout's) concerns
and Peter Quince's concerns about representing reality on stage?
- what do Quince and Bottom's two alternative methods of
"signifying" moon and wall suggest about the transmission and reception
- what's suggested by Puck's considering the rehearsal
as a play? of his playing both auditor and actor? Follow the buildup of
intensity from line 1 to 120; as a rehearsal turns into a performance.
- any connection between all the errors that Bottom makes
in decoding his part--e.g. his stringing together his cues and his lines
or his use of the word opposite the one he means--and other errors and
confusions in the play? e.g. line 113.
- how does the plot and language of "Pyramis and Thisbe"
reflect the main plot? What makes one silly and the other serious?
- how is Bottom's transformation similar to Lysander's?
- lines 121-202
- dramatic effect of mass exit which leaves Bottom alone
on stage singing to himself while Titania remains sleeping
- comic effect of juxtaposing their different modes of
feeling and speech--Queen of the Fairies and Bully Bottom; comparisons
to mismatches of Helena, Demetrius, Lysander and Hermia; implications
- How does Bottom react to his own transformation, his
new status and the fairy servants? Any connection to his thoughts and
behavior as a player?
- lines 1-40
- Oberon's mood? What multiple satisfactions does his "plot"
provide? How does Puck's narrative entertain him?
- Relate Puck's account of how delusion works on the "rude
mechanicals" to Theseus' speech in Act V.
- Watch audience-actor configuration in this and later
subscenes. Whose confusion and error do we observe?
- Compare Hermia's confusion with Demetrius'; her process
of "reasonable" inference with his "mad" obsession
- How is his (and others') sudden going to sleep both absurd
and believable? What's relation among being asleep, dead and offstage?
- Watch audience become director-playwright and change
the script in the process of production. To eventually bring about resolution,
they complicate the plot further.
- Do we see Lysander and Helena as free agents or puppet-actors?
What's connection between this question and their discussion of oaths
and loyalty (or "truth")? See also line 92.
- compare Demetrius' awakening to Titania's
- what's effect of arrival of Demetrius and Hermia? In
addition to the drug, what other factors heighten the confusion here?
See especially Helena's recollection, lines 201-216, where friends' similarity
is disrupted by sexual differentiation. An analogous process seems to
take place in communication, where deception or sarcasm can makes words
mean both themselves and their opposites, as in 194, 247-248, 264, raising
the question of what makes a joke?
- what happens to fond schoolgirl memories at 323?
- This subscene moves from confusion toward violence; how
is hate similar to love?
- To what place in the plot line and five-act structure
have we come? What factors shape Oberon and Puck's shaping of the action
- atmosphere of this final "wood" scene--"rounded with
a sleep": Demetrius and Lysander are engaged in the most conclusive activity
of fighting, yet it's the least substantial, closest to dream. General
exhaustion prevails. But when you dream you're dreaming, you're closest
to waking up.
- significance of Puck's transformation from mischief-
maker to guardian angel? Compare his blessing here to fairy lullaby, II,ii,
- Bottom and Titania are carried further away on their
dream of love. Contrast how they appear to one another and how they appear
to audience. Also contrast their two versions of ultimate pleasure. How
could you stage this subscene for the sexiest and funniest effects and
still maintain its romantic lyricism?
- As we move from night to morning, dream to waking, fairyland
to the wood and then back to the city, the separated plot lines converge
in a common "reality." Compare Oberon's triumph to Theseus'.
- What are the various functions of music at the end of
this and beginning of the next subscene. How is music as a form of imaginative,
artistic creation effective in carrying out these functions?
- What's relation between "musical confusion" of animal
barking and the "jangling sport" of the lovers (III,ii, 353). Does the
play suggest other parallels between the sports of hunting and love?
- What causes the"gentle concord" that resolves the plot's
- How is the experience of "awakening" represented here?
What makes that experience remarkable? Do you see parallels between awakening
and leaving a play or movie?
- What changes in consciousness take place within the course
of these lines? Why is it important for the lovers to be sure they are
awake? How do they prove it? What do they do once they're sure they're
no longer dreaming?
- To make sense of this parallel awakening scene, you have
to fill in some empty spaces. What's the first thing Bottom remembers?
How is his memory of dreaming different from the lovers'? What's expressed
in the dashes in lines 211 and 212? How is the way Bottom orients himself
and uses his dream different and similar to the lovers'? What's suggested
here about dreams and playwriting? Whose death is he talking about in
222? Why is she referred to only with a pronoun?
- What other aspects of playacting are highlighted here?
How are we enchanted by the institution of theatre and the character of
Bottom in this scene? What secret does he share with us only?
- Study Theseus' speech closely. What is his theory of
the imagination? How does it apply to all that happens in the play, to
its actors as well as its audiences? What is his attitude toward the imagination;
how does that attitude fit his role? How does it relate to the lovers'
reflections on their experiences? To Bottom's?
- Does Hippolyta accept his explanations? What's her argument?
- What is Theseus' attitude to the upcoming play? Is it
consistent with his theory of poetry as "nothing."
- Philostrate, the master of revels, is in charge of royal
entertainments. What makes him laugh? What makes Puck, Theseus, and us
laugh in this play? What's suggested about a relation between tragedy
and comedy here?
- How does Theseus counter Hippolyta's objection? What
does he suggest about the process of communication and understanding?
- 106-372--the play within the play
- How are these suggestions explored in the Prologue's
speech and the audience's response?
- Shakespeare's theatre company was maneuvering for patronage
by the royal court at the time MND was written. Does this scene compliment
or criticize the audience? the players?
- Elizabethan players often presented pantomime summaries
of the upcoming play to help the audience follow the plot
- Notice the role of error and confusion--"misprision--
in the tragic plot of Pyramis and Thisbe, a parody of Romeo and Juliet.
What makes the poetic language of the speakers appropriate to tragedy
and at the same time comic?
- What parallels can you find between "Pyramis and Thisbe"
- Examine some of the incongruities in both the script
and in the performance of Pyramis commented on by the audience. How do
conspicuous errors reveal the hidden norms they violate?
- Notice Theseus' royal estimation of theatrical quality,
lines 211-216, and audience jockeying with players for the limelight.
- Theseus states that the players' entertainment as well
as the four day interval preceding it were just a way of passing time
before this "nuptial hour" when newlyweds go to bed. How does this concluding
emphasis on sleep relate to the awakenings in Act IV?
- What's the effect on us of this final appearance of the
fairies? How does it fit with Theseus' sense of what's real? with the
lovers'? with Bottom's? with Hippolyta's?
- How does the fairies' blessing on the wedding beds relate
to the earlier lullabies and to the idea of love as madness and poetry?
Relate their dance here to earlier dances. There is some evidence that
MND was first presented at Queen Elizabeth's court as a wedding entertainment.
Does this seem plausible?
- What polarized frames of reference or states of reality
are drawn together in Puck's final address to the audience? What does
the play's title refer to?