A Midsummer Night's Dream

Themes in the story

Carnivalesque

Both David Wiles of the University of London and Harold Bloom of Yale University have strongly endorsed the reading of this play under the themes of Carnivalesque, Bacchanalia, and Saturnalia.[8] Writing in 1998, David Wiles stated that: "The starting point for my own analysis will be the proposition that although we encounter A Midsummer Night's Dream as a text, it was historically part of an aristocratic carnival. It was written for a wedding, and part of the festive structure of the wedding night. The audience who saw the play in the public theatre in the months that followed became vicarious participants in an aristocratic festival from which they were physically excluded. My purpose will be to demonstrate how closely the play is integrated with a historically specific upper-class celebration."[9]

Love

David Bevington argues that the play represents the dark side of love. He writes that the fairies make light of love by mistaking the lovers and by applying a love potion to Titania's eyes, forcing her to fall in love with an ass.[10] In the forest, both couples are beset by problems. Hermia and Lysander are both met by Puck, who provides some comic relief in the play by confounding the four lovers in the forest. However, the play also alludes to serious themes. At the end of the play, Hippolyta and Theseus, happily married, watch the play about the unfortunate lovers, Pyramus and Thisbe, and are able to enjoy and laugh at it.[11] Helena and Demetrius are both oblivious to the dark side of their love, totally unaware of what may have come of the events in the forest.

Problem with time

There is a dispute over the scenario of the play as it is cited at first by Theseus that "four happy days bring in another moon".[2] The wood episode then takes place at a night of no moon, but Lysander asserts that there will be so much light in the very night they will escape that dew on the grass will be shining[12] like liquid pearls. Also, in the next scene, Quince states that they will rehearse in moonlight,[13] which creates a real confusion. It is possible that the Moon set during the night allowing Lysander to escape in the moonlight and for the actors to rehearse, then for the wood episode to occur without moonlight. Theseus's statement can also be interpreted to mean "four days until the next month". Another possibility is that, since each month there are roughly four consecutive nights that the moon is not seen due to its closeness to the sun in the sky (the two nights before the moment of new moon, followed by the two following it), it may in this fashion indicate a liminal "dark of the moon" period full of magical possibilities. This is further supported by Hippolyta's opening lines exclaiming " And then the moon, like to a silver bow New-bent in heaven, shall behold the night Of our solemnities."; the thin crescent-shaped moon being the hallmark of the new moon's return to the skies each month. The play also intertwines the Midsummer Eve of the title with May Day, furthering the idea of a confusion of time and the seasons. This is evidenced by Theseus commenting on some slumbering youths, that they "observe The rite of May" (Act 4, Scene 1).

Loss of individual identity

Maurice Hunt, Chair of the English Department at Baylor University, writes of the blurring of the identities of fantasy and reality in the play that make possible "that pleasing, narcotic dreaminess associated with the fairies of the play".[14] By emphasising this theme even in the setting of the play, Shakespeare prepares the reader's mind to accept the fantastic reality of the fairy world and its happenings. This also seems to be the axis around which the plot conflicts in the play occur. Hunt suggests that it is the breaking down of individual identities that leads to the central conflict in the story.[14] It is the brawl between Oberon and Titania, based on a lack of recognition for the other in the relationship, that drives the rest of the drama in the story and makes it dangerous for any of the other lovers to come together due to the disturbance of Nature caused by a fairy dispute.[14] Similarly, this failure to identify and to distinguish is what leads Puck to mistake one set of lovers for another in the forest, placing the flower's juice on Lysander's eyes instead of Demetrius'.

Victor Kiernan, a Marxist scholar and historian, writes that it is for the greater sake of love that this loss of identity takes place and that individual characters are made to suffer accordingly: "It was the more extravagant cult of love that struck sensible people as irrational, and likely to have dubious effects on its acolytes".[15] He believes that identities in the play are not so much lost as they are blended together to create a type of haze through which distinction becomes nearly impossible. It is driven by a desire for new and more practical ties between characters as a means of coping with the strange world within the forest, even in relationships as diverse and seemingly unrealistic as the brief love between Titania and Bottom the Ass: "It was the tidal force of this social need that lent energy to relationships".[16]

The aesthetics scholar David Marshall draws out this theme even further [17] by noting that the loss of identity reaches its fullness in the description of the mechanicals and their assumption of other identities. In describing the occupations of the acting troupe, he writes "Two construct or put together, two mend and repair, one weaves and one sews. All join together what is apart or mend what has been rent, broken, or sundered". In Marshall's opinion, this loss of individual identity not only blurs specificities, it creates new identities found in community, which Marshall points out may lead to some understanding of Shakespeare's opinions on love and marriage. Further, the mechanicals understand this theme as they take on their individual parts for a corporate performance of Pyramus and Thisbe. Marshall remarks that "To be an actor is to double and divide oneself, to discover oneself in two parts: both oneself and not oneself, both the part and not the part". He claims that the mechanicals understand this and that each character, particularly among the lovers, has a sense of laying down individual identity for the greater benefit of the group or pairing. It seems that a desire to lose one's individuality and find identity in the love of another is what quietly moves the events of A Midsummer Night's Dream. As the primary sense of motivation, this desire is reflected even in the scenery depictions and the story's overall mood.

Ambiguous sexuality

In his essay "Preposterous Pleasures: Queer Theories and A Midsummer Night's Dream", Douglas E. Green explores possible interpretations of alternative sexuality that he finds within the text of the play, in juxtaposition to the proscribed social mores of the culture at the time the play was written. He writes that his essay "does not (seek to) rewrite A Midsummer Night's Dream as a gay play but rather explores some of its 'homoerotic significations' ... moments of 'queer' disruption and eruption in this Shakespearean comedy".[18] Green states that he does not consider Shakespeare to have been a "sexual radical", but that the play represented a "topsy-turvy world" or "temporary holiday" that mediates or negotiates the "discontents of civilisation", which while resolved neatly in the story's conclusion, do not resolve so neatly in real life.[19] Green writes that the "sodomitical elements", "homoeroticism", "lesbianism", and even "compulsory heterosexuality" in the story must be considered in the context of the "culture of early modern England" as a commentary on the "aesthetic rigidities of comic form and political ideologies of the prevailing order". Aspects of ambiguous sexuality and gender conflict in the story are also addressed in essays by Shirley Garner[20] and William W.E. Slights[21] albeit all the characters are played by males.

Feminism

Male dominance is one thematic element found in A Midsummer Night's Dream. In A Midsummer Night's Dream, Lysander and Hermia escape into the woods for a night where they do not fall under the laws of Theseus or Egeus. Upon their arrival in Athens, the couples are married. Marriage is seen as the ultimate social achievement for women while men can go on to do many other great things and gain societal recognition.[22] In his article "The Imperial Votaress", Louis Montrose draws attention to male and female gender roles and norms present in the comedy in connection with Elizabethan culture. In reference to the triple wedding, he says, "The festive conclusion in A Midsummer Night's Dream depends upon the success of a process by which the feminine pride and power manifested in Amazon warriors, possessive mothers, unruly wives, and wilful daughters are brought under the control of lords and husbands."[23] He says that the consummation of marriage is how power over a woman changes hands from father to husband. A connection between flowers and sexuality is drawn. The juice employed by Oberon can be seen as symbolising menstrual blood as well as the sexual blood shed by virgins. While blood as a result of menstruation is representative of a woman's power, blood as a result of a first sexual encounter represents man's power over women.[24]

There are points in the play, however, when there is an absence of patriarchal control. In his book Power on Display, Leonard Tennenhouse says the problem in A Midsummer Night's Dream is the problem of "authority gone archaic".[25] The Athenian law requiring a daughter to die if she does not do her father's will is outdated. Tennenhouse contrasts the patriarchal rule of Theseus in Athens with that of Oberon in the carnivalistic Faerie world. The disorder in the land of the fairies completely opposes the world of Athens. He states that during times of carnival and festival, male power is broken down. For example, what happens to the four lovers in the woods as well as Bottom's dream represents chaos that contrasts with Theseus' political order. However, Theseus does not punish the lovers for their disobedience. According to Tennenhouse, by forgiving the lovers, he has made a distinction between the law of the patriarch (Egeus) and that of the monarch (Theseus), creating two different voices of authority. This distinction can be compared to the time of Elizabeth I in which monarchs were seen as having two bodies: the body natural and the body politic. Elizabeth's succession itself represented both the voice of a patriarch as well as the voice of a monarch: (1) her father's will which stated that the crown should pass to her and (2) the fact that she was the daughter of a king.[26] The challenge to patriarchal rule in A Midsummer Night's Dream mirrors exactly what was occurring in the age of Elizabeth I.


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