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Shakespeare and Impure Aesthetics: The Case of A Midsummer Night’s Dream


Shakespeare studies have avoided the idea of “the aesthetic,” but a return to aesthetics may now be on the critical agenda. This essay argues that “impure aesthetics”—borrowing from Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin—is a promising form for the revival to take. Shakespeare himself seems to share some of the ideas of impure aesthetics, especially in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The play, one of Shakespeare’s fullest explorations of aesthetic ideas, is thus a meta-aesthetic drama, as well as a development of the genre of comedy to unprecedented levels of aesthetic complexity and self-reflection. The play models the relation between the aesthetic and the world in the contrasts between the play’s fairy and human realms; Titania and Oberon embody important aspects of the play’s aestheticizing strategy by figuring the potential harmony between the human and the natural, while displaying human foibles that disorganize the natural world. Bottom’s Dream is another figural representation of the relation of the aesthetic to the social and one that (like the play-within-the-play) highlights the material and bodily bases of art’s representation of the ethereal and the spiritual.

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