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A Midsummer Night’s Dream /

Reading Shakespeare’s Language: A Midsummer Night’s Dream

By Barbara Mowat and Paul Werstine
Editors of the Folger Shakespeare Library Editions

For many people today, reading Shakespeare’s language can be a problem—but it is a problem that can be solved. Those who have studied Latin (or even French or German or Spanish) and those who are used to reading poetry will have little difficulty understanding the language of poetic drama. Others, however, need to develop the skills of untangling unusual sentence structures and of recognizing and understanding poetic compressions, omissions, and wordplay. And even those skilled in reading unusual sentence structures may have occasional trouble with Shakespeare’s words. More than four hundred years of “static”—caused by changes in language and in life—intervene between his speaking and our hearing. Most of his vocabulary is still in use, but a few of his words are no longer used, and many of his words now have meanings quite different from those they had in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In the theater, most of these difficulties are solved for us by actors who study the language and articulate it for us so that the essential meaning is heard—or, when combined with stage action, is at least felt. When we are reading on our own, we must do what each actor does: go over the lines (often with a dictionary close at hand) until the puzzles are solved and the lines yield up their poetry and the characters speak in words and phrases that are, suddenly, rewarding and wonderfully memorable.

Shakespeare’s Words

As you begin to read the opening scenes of a Shakespeare play, you may notice occasional unfamiliar words. Some are unfamiliar simply because we no longer use them. In the opening scenes of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for example, you will find the words mewed (i.e., caged), an (i.e., if), beteem (i.e., grant, give), momentany (i.e., momentary), and collied (i.e., coal black). Words of this kind will become familiar the more of Shakespeare’s plays you read.

In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as in all of Shakespeare’s writing, more problematic are the words that are still in use but that now have different meanings. In the opening scene of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for example, the word conceit has the meaning of “a fancy trinket,” the word solemnity is used where we would say “festive ceremony,” blood where we would say “passions, feelings,” fantasy where we would say “imagination,” and well possessed where we would say “wealthy.” Such words, too, will become familiar as you continue to read Shakespeare’s language.

Some words are strange not because of the “static” introduced by changes in language over the past centuries but because these are words that Shakespeare is using to build a dramatic world that has its own space, time, history, and background mythology. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a particularly interesting example of this practice in that, in this play, Shakespeare creates three such worlds, each of which thinly veils other, very different worlds. In the play’s first scene he builds a world that purports to be the city of Athens, home to the legendary characters Theseus and Hippolyta. That world exists in references to “Athenian youth,” to “the law of Athens,” and to “Athens’ gates.” But the language used in this Athens creates not a recognizable Greek city (in contrast to the opening scenes of, say, Julius Caesar, where the language creates a Rome of the classic past) but rather a placeless, almost timeless world of romantic love, of ritual, of mythology. This romance world is created through references to May Day “observances,” to “Diana’s altar,” to “Venus’ doves,” to “winged Cupid,” to “Cupid’s strongest bow,” and to “his best arrow with the golden head.”

In the play’s second scene, Shakespeare builds a world of supposedly Athenian workingmen (a world created primarily through the names of the men’s occupations—joiner, bellows-mender, tinker) but here again language displaces this world and creates a world of theater, with its “scrolls,” “scrips,” “parts,” “cues,” and “bills of properties.” References to mythological figures appear here, as they do in the world of Theseus’s Athens, but now transformed through the language of the uneducated workers into comic references to “Phibbus’ car” (i.e., the chariot of the sun god, Phoebus) and to “Ercles” (i.e., Hercules).

Finally, in the play’s third scene, he creates the world of Fairyland, ruled over by Oberon, king of the fairies, and Titania, his queen. This world is made through references to “changelings,” to “fairy ringlets” (i.e., circle dances), to “orbs” (i.e., the dancing ground of fairies), and to such magic flowers as “love-in-idleness.” But more interesting are the other worlds created through the language of the fairies—first, the world of English country villagers affected by the doings of fairies, especially by that “lob of sprites,” Robin Goodfellow, a world that is never shown onstage but that is created through references to the “villagery,” the “quern,” the “gossips’ bowl,” the old “aunt” with her “withered dewlap,” the “quaint mazes in the wanton green,” the “murrain flock,” and “nine-men’s-morris”; second, the world of Titania’s past, with its mortal “vot’ress” who sat with her in the “spicèd Indian air” on “Neptune’s yellow sands,” watching “embarkèd traders on the flood”; and, third, the world of Oberon’s past, with its “mermaid on a dolphin’s back,” its “bolt of Cupid,” its “vestal thronèd by the West.” This pattern of displacement, this creation of worlds that thinly veil quite different worlds, may well help to explain this play’s magic, otherworldly quality.

Shakespeare’s Sentences

In an English sentence, meaning is quite dependent on the place given each word. “The dog bit the boy” and “The boy bit the dog” mean very different things, even though the individual words are the same. Because English places such importance on the positions of words in sentences, on the way words are arranged, unusual arrangements can puzzle a reader. Shakespeare frequently shifts his sentences away from “normal” English arrangements—often to create the rhythm he seeks, sometimes to use a line’s poetic rhythm to emphasize a particular word, sometimes to give a character his or her own speech patterns or to allow the character to speak in a special way. When we attend a good performance of the play, the actors will have worked out the sentence structures and will articulate the sentences so that the meaning is clear. When reading the play, we need to do as the actor does: that is, when puzzled by a character’s speech, check to see if the words are being presented in an unusual sequence.

Shakespeare often places the verb before the subject (e.g., instead of “He goes,” we find “Goes he”). In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, we find such a construction when Egeus says (1.1.23) “Full of vexation come I” (instead of “Full of vexation I come”); Lysander uses this same kind of construction when, at 1.1.163, he says “There, gentle Hermia, may I marry thee,” as does Hermia at 1.1.209–10, when she says “Before the time I did Lysander see / Seemed Athens as a paradise to me.” Helena’s “But herein mean I to enrich my pain” (1.1.256) is another example of inverted subject and verb.

Such inversions rarely cause much confusion. More problematic is Shakespeare’s frequent placing of the object before the subject and verb (e.g., instead of “I hit him,” we might find “Him I hit”). Egeus’s “And what is mine my love shall render him” (1.1.98) is an example of such an inversion (the normal order would be “And my love shall render him what is mine”), as is Helena’s “Things base and vile, holding no quantity, / Love can transpose to form and dignity” (1.1.238–39), where “things base and vile” is the object of the verb “transpose.”

Inversions are not the only unusual sentence structures in Shakespeare’s language. Often in his sentences words that would normally appear together are separated from each other. (Again, this is often done to create a particular rhythm or to stress a particular word.) Take, for example, Theseus’s “But earthlier happy is the rose distilled / Than that which, withering on the virgin thorn, / Grows, lives, and dies in single blessedness” (1.1.78–80); here the phrase “withering on the virgin thorn” separates the pronoun (“which”) from its verb (“grows”). Or take Lysander’s lines that begin at 1.1.103: “My fortunes every way as fairly ranked / (If not with vantage) as Demetrius’,” where the normal construction “as fairly ranked as Demetrius’” is interrupted by the insertion of the parenthetical “If not with vantage.” In order to create for yourself sentences that seem more like the English of everyday speech, you may wish to rearrange the words, putting together the word clusters (“that which grows,” “as fairly ranked as Demetrius’”). You will usually find that the sentences will gain in clarity but will lose their rhythm or shift their emphases.

Locating and if necessary rearranging words that “belong together” is especially helpful in passages that separate basic sentence elements by long delaying or expanding interruptions. In some plays (Hamlet, for instance), long interrupted sentences are used to catch the audience up in the narrative or are used as a characterizing device. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the interruptions are more often decorative lyrical passages. Hermia uses such an interrupted construction when she says to Lysander at 1.1.172–81:

I swear to thee by Cupid’s strongest bow,

By his best arrow with the golden head,

By the simplicity of Venus’ doves,

By that which knitteth souls and prospers loves,

And by that fire which burned the Carthage queen

When the false Trojan under sail was seen,

By all the vows that ever men have broke

(In number more than ever women spoke),

In that same place thou hast appointed me,

Tomorrow truly will I meet with thee.

Occasionally, rather than separating basic sentence elements, Shakespeare simply holds them back, delaying them until subordinate material has already been given. Lysander uses this kind of delaying structure when he says, at 1.1.134–36, “For aught that I could ever read, / Could ever hear by tale or history, / The course of true love never did run smooth” (where the basic sentence elements “The course of true love never did run smooth” are held back until two lines of explanatory material are introduced); Lysander’s speech to Helena at 1.1.214–18 uses this same delayed construction:

Tomorrow night when Phoebe doth behold

Her silver visage in the wat’ry glass,

Decking with liquid pearl the bladed grass

(A time that lovers’ flights doth still conceal),

Through Athens’ gates have we devised to steal—

delaying the basic sentence elements “we have devised to steal through Athens’ gates” and then doubly inverting them.

Finally, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as in other of Shakespeare’s plays, sentences are sometimes complicated not because of unusual structures or interruptions but because Shakespeare omits words and parts of words that English sentences normally require. (In conversation, we, too, often omit words. We say “Heard from him yet?” and our hearer supplies the missing “Have you.”) Frequent reading of Shakespeare—and of other poets—trains us to supply such missing words. In plays written ten years or so after A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare uses omissions both of verbs and of nouns to great dramatic effect. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream omissions are few and seem to result from the poet’s wish to create regular iambic pentameter lines. At 1.1.76, for instance, Theseus says “Thrice-blessèd they that master so their blood” instead of “Thrice-blessèd are they.” This omission creates a rhythmically regular line. At 1.1.166 (“Steal forth thy father’s house tomorrow night”), the omission of the word from in the phrase “forth from” again creates a regular rhythm.

Shakespearean Wordplay

Shakespeare plays with language so often and so variously that entire books are written on the topic. His wordplay in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is particularly interesting in the way it varies his usual use of puns and figurative language. A pun is a play on words that sound the same but that have different meanings. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, puns are found only occasionally, but, as with much of the language of this play, where they are used, they are used complexly. When, for example, Helena says (at 1.1.248–51),

For, ere Demetrius looked on Hermia’s eyne,

He hailed down oaths that he was only mine;

And when this hail some heat from Hermia felt,

So he dissolved, and show’rs of oaths did melt—

the first use of the word hail means “to shower down, to pour,” but, since it sounds exactly like the verb hale, it also carries the sense of “pull down,” as if the oaths were being tugged down from the sky. The second use of the word hail, in the following line, is as a noun, and Demetrius’s oaths are given the characteristics of hail: they feel heat, dissolve, and melt. This shift from hail/hale as a verb to hail as a noun is an interestingly complex pun.

More often, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, we find instead a variation on Shakespeare’s usual puns. In a complex variant on the pun, he has characters confuse words with other words that sound (more or less) the same but have very different meanings. (Such verbal confusions are now called “malapropisms.”) Bottom is particularly inclined to this kind of speech. When he says, for example, “But I will aggravate my voice so that I will roar you as gently as any sucking dove” (1.2.78–80) he seems to be confusing aggravate with moderate or mitigate (soften, tone down). (In a different kind of confusion, his reference to the “sucking dove” mixes up the sucking [i.e., unweaned] lamb and the sitting [i.e., hatching] dove.) When he says “there we may rehearse most obscenely and courageously” (1.2.103–4), he is confusing obscenely with some other word (probably seemly) and confusing courageously either with a word that sounds a bit like it (perhaps correctly) or perhaps with the word bravely, which had the meaning both of “courageously” and of “splendidly, in a fine fashion.”

Not only are puns and related wordplay used unusually and complexly in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but figurative language is also shifted away from Shakespeare’s usual patterns. Instead of finding straightforward metaphors (i.e., plays on words in which one object or idea is expressed as if it were something else, something with which it shares common features), one is more likely to find extended similes, buried similes, and elaborate personifications. In a simile, one thing is said to be like or as another, as when Theseus charges that the moon “lingers my desires / Like to a stepdame or a dowager / Long withering out a young man’s revenue” (1.1.4–6). Here the moon is compared to a stepmother or a widow with rights in her husband’s property, and Theseus’s desires are compared to the young man who has to wait to claim his inheritance. Many of the similes in this play begin as simple similes and then extend themselves into elaborate comparisons that take on some of the qualities of what we sometimes call “epic similes.” In Lysander’s words to Hermia at 1.1.136–51, for example, he first compares the briefness of love to a series of things thought of as transient: sounds, shadows, dreams. Then, with the comparison of love to “lightning in the collied [coal-black] night,” the simile takes on a life of its own, as the lightning “unfolds both heaven and Earth” and then is devoured by the darkness:

The course of true love never did run smooth. . . .

[Since,] if there were a sympathy in choice,

War, death, or sickness did lay siege to it,

Making it momentany as a sound,

Swift as a shadow, short as any dream,

Brief as the lightning in the collied night,

That, in a spleen, unfolds both heaven and Earth,

And, ere a man hath power to say “Behold!”

The jaws of darkness do devour it up.

So quick bright things come to confusion.

(Note the powerful puns in the final line of this speech, where “So quick bright things” means, simultaneously, “So quickly do bright things” and “Thus quick [living, intense] bright things,” and where confusion means both “destruction, ruin” and “disorder.”)

One finds a much simpler example of an extended simile in Helena’s charge to Hermia (1.1.186–88):

Your eyes are lodestars and your tongue’s sweet air

More tunable than lark to shepherd’s ear

When wheat is green, when hawthorn buds appear—

where the third line elaborates the figure of the lark, to which Hermia’s tongue has been compared.

Another kind of extended simile in this play is reminiscent of emblem books, where an idea is shown in the form of a picture under which is printed a name for the picture and an elaborate explanation. One finds the verbal equivalent of such an emblem in Helena’s speech about Love (1.1.240–47). (Here the “picture” we are supposedly looking at is that of the boy Cupid, wearing a blindfold and bearing wings; Helena’s words provide the standard “explanation” of the picture and its title, “Love”):

Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind;

And therefore is winged Cupid painted blind.

Nor hath Love’s mind of any judgment taste.

Wings, and no eyes, figure unheedy haste.

And therefore is Love said to be a child

Because in choice he is so oft beguiled.

As waggish boys in game themselves forswear,

So the boy Love is perjured everywhere.

The entire speech could be transcribed as an extended simile: “Love is like a boy who is winged and blind, because love is blind, without judgment, hasty, etc.”

Often in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the simile, rather than being extended, is “buried” within the language. (Some readers might prefer to see these buried similes as metaphors.) For example, when Theseus says to Hermia (1.1.76–80):

Thrice-blessèd they that master so their blood

To undergo such maiden pilgrimage,

But earthlier happy is the rose distilled

Than that which, withering on the virgin thorn,

Grows, lives, and dies in single blessedness—

under the surface of the language is a comparison of the unmarried woman to an unplucked rose and of the married woman to the rose that is plucked and its fragrance distilled into perfume. When Lysander says to Hermia (1.1.130–31): “How now, my love? Why is your cheek so pale? / How chance the roses there do fade so fast?” the buried simile likens red cheeks to roses. Hermia continues that simile when she responds (1.1.132–33): “Belike [probably] for want [lack] of rain, which I could well / Beteem [give] them from the tempest of my eyes,” expanding the buried simile to include a comparison of weeping eyes to pouring rain. Hermia’s “Keep word, Lysander. We must starve our sight / From lovers’ food till morrow deep midnight” (1.1.227–28) includes a buried simile: the sight of the beloved is like food to the lover.

Finally, figurative language in A Midsummer Night’s Dream often includes personification (i.e., abstract qualities are given human characteristics). To take a single example: when Theseus says to his master of the revels (1.1.14–16): “Awake the pert and nimble spirit of mirth. / Turn melancholy forth to funerals; / The pale companion is not for our pomp,” he personifies both mirth and melancholy, expanding the personification of melancholy by describing it as pale and using the condescending term companion (which here means “fellow”).

Implied Stage Action

Finally, in reading Shakespeare’s plays we should always remember that what we are reading is a performance script. The dialogue is written to be spoken by actors who, at the same time, are moving, gesturing, picking up objects, weeping, shaking their fists. Some stage action is described in what are called “stage directions”; some is suggested within the dialogue itself. We must learn to be alert to such signals as we stage the play in our imaginations. When, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at 2.1.60, Robin Goodfellow says to the Fairy “room [i.e., stand aside], fairy. Here comes Oberon,” and the Fairy responds “And here my mistress. Would that he were gone!” it is almost certain that Robin and the Fairy would move aside for the entrance of the king and queen of Fairyland. Similarly, a few lines later, when Titania orders her fairies to “skip hence,” it is almost certain that they would obey her orders. Her later orders to them at line 149, “Fairies, away,” show that, when they earlier “skip hence,” they do not leave the stage. At many places in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, signals to the reader are not quite so clear. When Demetrius says to Helena at line 242 “Let me go,” it is clear that she has earlier taken hold of him, but it is not at all certain when she did so. Nor is it certain when she turns him loose (or, perhaps, when he pulls away from her) nor even when he exits. (In our text, we have shown him leaving the stage two lines before Helena’s exit, but we could have placed his exit several lines earlier, or have left him onstage until Helena’s exit.) In these uncertain situations, the director and the actors and you, as reader, must decide what makes for the most interesting, most likely, action.

Many scenes in this play give scope for imaginative “staging”: Just how do Oberon and Robin “anoint” the eyes of their sleeping victims? How does Robin stage the mock combat between Lysander and Demetrius? What stage action accompanies the speeches of Titania to (and about) the transformed Bottom: “Out of this wood do not desire to go” (3.1.154); “Tie up my lover’s tongue. Bring him silently” (3.1.208); “So doth the woodbine the sweet honeysuckle / Gently entwist; the female ivy so / Enrings the barky fingers of the elm” (4.1.43–45)?

Learning to read the language of stage action repays one many times over when one reaches scenes such as the final scene of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where much of the pleasure of the scene turns on our ability to visualize the performance of “Pyramus and Thisbe” before a scoffing court (as Wall provides a “chink” through which the lovers whisper, as “Moon” defends his bush and his lantern, as Thisbe imbrues her breast with a “trusty sword”).

It is immensely rewarding to work carefully with Shakespeare’s language so that the words, the sentences, the wordplay, and the implied stage action all become clear—as readers for the past four centuries have discovered. It may be more pleasurable to attend a good performance of a play—though not everyone has thought so. But the joy of being able to stage one of Shakespeare’s plays in one’s imagination, to return to passages that continue to yield further meanings (or further questions) the more one reads them—these are pleasures that, for many, rival (or at least augment) those of the performed text, and certainly make it worth considerable effort to “break the code” of Elizabethan poetic drama and let free the remarkable language that makes up a Shakespeare text.