A midsummer’s Night’s Dream “Man is an ass if he go about to expound my dream”



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A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream

  • “Man is an ass if he go about to expound my dream”

  • Bottom, IV, i, 207


  • Is this the most popular, most performed of Shakespeare’s plays?

  • Straightforward characters – few psychological complexities

  • Lyrical – “poetic” – language

  • “Classic” comic structure.

  • Upbeat ending: “Jack shall have Jill/ Nought shall go ill.”

  • The “rude mechanicals”



  • But what’s the real reason???

  • The “tick” of Shakespeare’s imagination: self reflexiveness.

  • The roots of the imagination, the sources of theater.

  • No narrative source for the play --

  • he made it up “all by himself, with nobody helping him.”



Playing roles, making theater

  • Meg O’C, skeptical five-year-old drama critic at production of MND in Regent’s Park, 1978:

  • Daddy, are they who they say they are, or are they just actors?”

  • Act III, scene i: Bottom’s concerns:

  • “And for the more better assurance, tell them that I am not Pyramus, but Bottom the weaver. This will put them out of fear.”



The imaginative materials of MND

  • “Athens” – how real?

  • The lovers: what sort of lovers, how imagined?

  • The fairies: what are they?

  • The “mechanicals”: where from?



Theseus and Athens

  • Law ‘n order.

  • Plotlessness of Theseus/Hippolyta – just hanging out, waiting for nuptial day.

  • The wonderfully rational “law of Athens.”

  • Gender order in Athens.

  • “What cheer, my love”

  • His rationality on “The lover, the lunatic, and the poet”: Act V, scene 1.



But Theseus’ view of drama

  • “I will hear that play.” -- V, 1, 81ff

  • What the audience must supply: “The kinder we, to give them thanks for nothing.”

  • Hippolyta: “This is the silliest stuff that ever I heard.”

  • Theseus: “The best in this kind are but shadows, and the worst no worse if imagination amend them.”



The fairies

  • Reversal of world of Athens? – “What cheer, my love?”

  • Gendering of rule

  • What are fairies? Their role in natural phenomena, etc.

  • Puck as mad, possibly malevolent playwright?

  • Oberon’s role.



The lovers – “quick bright things” coming to confusion

  • I, 1, 130 to 149: the generic possibilities

  • What other play was Shakespeare writing – or had just written – in 1595?

  • How are the lovers imagined?

  • Their “geometry”:

  • Lysander> Hermia,and Hermia> Lysander. But Demetrius > Hermia and Hermia < Demetrius. Helena > Demetrius, but Demetrius < Helena.

  • Lysander > Helena, < Hermia; Hermia> Lysander. Demetrius > Hermia. Helena > Demetrius.

  • Lysander > Hermia, Hermia > Lysander. Demetrius > Helena, Helena > Demetrius. “Jack shall have Jill, Nought shall go ill.”



The Mechanicals

  • Philostrate describes them as

  • “Hard-handed men, that work in Athens here

  • Which never labored in their minds till now;

  • And now have toiled their unbreathed memories

  • With this same play, against your nuptial. “

  • Their names suggest their trades: Peter Quince is a carpenter (quines are blocks used in building); Bottom the weaver: bottom is a sort of bobbin for winding yarn; Snug the joiner; Flute for fluted bellows in an organ; Snout suggests the spout of a kettle, which a tinker would mend; and tailors were notoriously skinny, so Starveling.



  • Obviously a group of English workingmen, not real of course but comically imagined.

  • Inexperienced but enthusiastic amateur actors.

  • Are they in fact inventing theater for themselves, the way children would?

  • They may be as unsophisticated about theater as Theseus is sophisticated.

  • But are their concerns in fact the basic problems of putting on a play, funny mainly because we have already solved them?





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