Barber, C. L. “May Games and Metamorphoses on a Midsummer Night.” In Shakespeare’s Festive Comedy, pp. 119–62. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1959.
Barber proposes that Shakespeare’s Dream involves a “complex fusion of pageantry and popular games.” Mixed with the kind of pageantry usually presented at aristocratic weddings are the more popular rituals of May Day—a combination Shakespeare exploits to fashion the town-grove-town movement the play follows. By structuring the play around oppositions—everyday/holiday, town/grove, day/night—Shakespeare confidently separates “shadow” from “substance” and provides an environment of “unshadowed gaiety.”
Barkan, Leonard. “Ovid Translated.” In The Gods Made Flesh: Metamorphosis and the Pursuit of Paganism, pp. 251–70. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986.
Focusing on Theseus’s fifth-act dismissal of the lovers’ stories as “antique fables,” Barkan explores Dream’s self-conscious awareness of the classical myths that inspire much of Dream’s action. Specifically, Barkan examines Shakespeare’s “translation” of Ovid’s Metamorphoses into his own “mythic language.” Barkan concludes that Shakespeare views antiquity through the eyes of Ovid and therefore constructs an Athens where “gods, mortals and heroes live in democratic proximity, intermingling via the perils and delights of love.”
Bristol, Michael. “Wedding Feast and Charivari.” In Carnival and Theater: Plebeian Culture and the Structure of Authority in Renaissance England, pp. 162–78. New York and London: Methuen, 1985.
In Elizabethan England, marriage was a largely public matter, with questions of preference and personal desire open to public scrutiny. Bristol therefore reads “Pyramus and Thisby” as an inadvertent social critique of the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta, in that the farce’s admonitory effects do not depend on the unwitting company’s knowledge. The burlesque counterfestivity of the drama—which invokes a complex fusion of festive customs—reveals the insubstantiality of social identity by ridiculing the desires and behaviors of the drama’s upper-class audience.
Calderwood, James L. “A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Anamorphism and Theseus’ Dream.” Shakespeare Quarterly 42 (1991): 409–30.
Calderwood explores the broader implications of doubling in Dream, i.e., assigning to a single actor the parts of both Titania and Hippolyta and assigning to another the parts of both Theseus and Oberon, a widespread practice in recent productions. With wonderfully comic results, Calderwood speculates that the scenes in the woods may be read as “Theseus’ dream,” in which the anxieties and desires that he feels on the occasion of his imminent wedding to the Amazon Hippolyta are played out with Theseus and Hippolyta as the Fairy King and Queen.
Girard, René. “Myth and Ritual in Shakespeare: A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” In Textual Strategies: Perspectives in Post-Structuralist Criticism, ed. Josué V. Harari, pp. 29–45. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1979.
Girard disentangles the relationship(s) among the four young lovers, finding the only constant to be the convergence of more than one desire on a single object, as if rivalry were more important than love. Girard determines that the driving desire is the absolute seductive dominance that each character in turn appears to embody in the eyes of the others. Their frantic attempt to “translate” themselves into the figure that, for the moment, possesses this sexual quality ultimately causes their differences to disintegrate and their identities to collapse.
Greer, Germaine. “Love and the Law.” In Politics, Power, and Shakespeare, ed. Frances McNeely Leonard, pp. 29–45. Arlington, Texas: Texas Humanities Research Center, 1981.
Greer sets out the underlying conundrum of Dream: how to “civilize love,” which is by nature “anarchic.” Love and law meet, Greer writes, in marriage, and she therefore explores the unreliability of sexual passion as a basis for a lasting marriage as it is manifested in Dream. Rather than concluding with a “starry-eyed statement about living happily ever after,” Shakespeare provides a pragmatic answer to Dream’s riddle in his appeal to “simple human dignity,” in the persons of the mechanicals, and the responsibility of child rearing, as expressed in the play’s marriage poem.
Leggatt, Alexander. “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” In Shakespeare’s Comedy of Love, pp. 89–115. London: Methuen, 1974.
Leggatt reads the play as a constant process of exorcism as each possible threat to the comic world is driven away. The slender separation between the comic world of the play and the darker world of “passion, terror and chaos” is maintained by the audience’s empathy for the seemingly “trivial” concerns of the lovers. By taking the illusions of art and love as reality, the audience plays a vital part in Dream’s total harmony.
Marcus, Leah. The Politics of Mirth: Jonson, Herrick, Milton, Marvell, and the Defense of Old Holiday Pastimes. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.
Marcus traces the political struggle over the traditional pastimes of May Day and morris dances (both mentioned in Dream) that took place among Shakespeare’s contemporaries and successors. She places the festive rituals associated with seasonal holidays within the context of royal support for festive observances and specific literary practice. The literature of festival, according to Marcus, attempted to meld art and life and hence destroy its perceived separateness.
Miller, Ronald F. “A Midsummer Night’s Dream: The Fairies, Bottom, and the Mystery of Things.” Shakespeare Quarterly 26 (1975): 254–68.
Dream, for Miller, is a study of the nature and validity of the imagination. The indefiniteness of the fairies themselves calls into question the nature of love in Dream, for if the fairies, who in Theseus’s analysis are the bringers of joy, are delusions, love is a delusion. Ultimately, however, Bottom’s speech upon waking from his transformation—which echoes St. Paul’s paradox that faith is both folly and the highest wisdom—establishes the fairies’ ambiguous existence within the framework of a play that simultaneously encourages credulity and skepticism.
Mowat, Barbara. “‘A local habitation and a name’: Shakespeare’s Text as Construct,” Style 23 (1989): 335–51.
Mowat examines Shakespeare’s construction of Theseus as an example of the construction of Shakespearean dramatic character in general. She finds that rather than being a unitary character “created in a flash of poetic frenzy,” Theseus is “woven from texts [of Ovid, Chaucer, and Reginald Scot] not only various but rhetorically and ideologically at odds.” His speeches are constructed “within a massive field” of printed discourse, including texts “expressing both sides of a contemporary (and heated) debate” on the imagination and witchcraft.
Nashe, Thomas. Summer’s Last Will and Testament (1592). In Thomas Nashe, ed. Stanley Wells, pp. 91–143. Stratford-upon-Avon Library. London: Edward Arnold, 1964.
Nashe’s allegorical play on the theme of summer represents a dramatic style from the early 1590s. In his influential study of Shakespearean comedy, C. L. Barber reads Nashe’s drama as analogous to Shakespeare’s Dream.
Ovid. The Metamorphoses (1567). Translated by Arthur Golding. London: Centaur Press, 1961.
Among the direct sources of Shakespeare’s works, after North’s Plutarch and Holinshed’s Chronicles, probably the most influential was Ovid. In Shakespeare’s Dream in particular, Ovid’s Metamorphoses is evident both in the transformation of Bottom and in the play-within-the-play “Pyramus and Thisby.” Shakespeare seems to have known Ovid’s work in the original Latin and in Arthur Golding’s 1567 translation.
Riemer, A. P. Antic Fables: Patterns of Evasion in Shakespeare’s Comedies. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1980.
Riemer maintains that modern critical efforts to bring Shakespeare’s comedies into line with the dominant tradition of European comedy misunderstands their essential nature. Shakespeare’s comic ends, dismissed frequently as too cavalier to be sincere, are for Riemer an assertion that art exists “for the sake of its own conceit [i.e., conception of itself],” and not to castigate folly or correct the manners of the age.
Slights, William W. E. “The Changeling in A Dream.” Studies in English Literature 28 (1988): 259–72.
The disputed changeling boy at the center of Oberon and Titania’s custody battle illustrates, for Slights, a principle of indeterminacy evident in many parts of the play. Indeterminacy—that is, contending and conflicted meanings—is the essential condition of people in love, Slight argues. As a figure of indeterminacy, the changeling boy skirts the boundaries between human and other worlds and propels the play into the “uncharted territory on the fringes or ‘margins’ of society” where rules of power collapse, leading to liberating and amusing results.