A Midsummer Night's Dream
Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of the most beloved of all of Shakespeare’s comedies, perhaps even of all his drama. In our class, I want us to probe that delight, and question what it is about fancy in particular that makes this play so popular to modern audiences, particularly with amateur and children’s productions. In Theseus’s famous commentary on the imagination, to which we will devote more attention on our second day, we have witnessed “shaping fantasies,” which figure much more supernatural and occult causes than “cool reason ever comprehends” (5.1.5; 6). But we are not on Theseus’s team, nor does his frigid rationality fit with the fairies, unruly weather, transformed humans, and love potions we have seen on the stage.
Part of the irony of Theseus’s complaint is that he is himself one of these “shaping fantasies”—a common player’s body transformed, only momentarily, into that of a mythic figure. Midsummer returns continually to the idea of fantasy, fancy, and dreams, and I want us to explore these interlocking conceits through the lens of the topsy-turvy, the carnival. Such a frame will, I hope, give us access to the play’s contradictions, its tensions, its darker elements, and its persistent eroticism. And we should also in the process notice what refuses to be corralled in this framework, those supernatural or indeterminate forces and bodies that both control and are controlled by the play’s plot.
To get at what I mean, first we have to understand the notion of the carnival, as it is defined by Michel Bakhtin. For Bakhtin, carnival is a space and time of inversion, when hierarchies are briefly overturned. It is a type of licensed release from the common strictures of social order. Men can dress as women, and the poorer sort can pose as kings. We might consider that the stage is thus always a carnival of sorts, for the players pose as both rulers and humbler common folk. In Midsummer, however, this carnivalesque has serious consequences, not least because of the environmental degradation that arises from an unruly Queen, Titania, insisting she have her way. As the Fairy Queen describes it:
And never, since the middle summer’s spring,
Met we on hill, in dale, forest or mead,
By paved fountain or by rushy brook,
Or in the beached margin of the sea
To dance our ringlets to the whistling wind,
But with thy brawls thou hast disturbed our sport.
Therefore the winds, piping to us in vain,
As in revenge have sucked up from the sea
Contagious fogs, which, falling in the land,
Hath every pelting river made so proud
That they have overborne their continents.
The ox hath therefore stretched his yoke in vain,
The ploughman lost his sweat, and the green corn
Hath rotted ere his youth attained a beard.
The fold stands empty in the drowned field,
And crows are fatted with the murrain flock.
The nine men’s morris is filled up with mud,
And the quaint mazes in the wanton green,
For lack of tread, are undistinguishable.
The human mortals want their winter here;
No night is now with hymn or carol blest.
Therefore the moon, the governess of floods,
Pale in her anger, washes all the air
That rheumatic diseases do abound.
And thorough this distemperature, we see
The seasons alter: hoary-headed frosts
Fall in the fresh lap of the crimson rose,
And on old Hiems’ thin and icy crown
An odorous chaplet of sweet summer buds
Is, as in mockery, set. The spring, the summer,
The childing autumn, angry winter change
Their wonted liveries; and the mazed world,
By their increase, now knows not which is which.
And this same progeny of evils comes
From our debate, from our dissension:
We are their parents and original. (2.1.81-117).
There is a lot we can make of this speech. We could apply an ecocritical lens, seeking to understand the environment of the Athenian woods and what it reveals about early modern understanding of ecosystems. What we should notice here is the responsiveness of nature. It is not only the fairies, but the environment itself that acts in sympathy with the emotions of Titania and Oberon. Antropomorphism abounds in these lines: the moon is angry, as is winter; the world itself does not know how to act. This is a world, that is, in which the human is not a contained self, but is open to environmental influences. And this too relates to Bakhtin’s theories. Another of Bakhtin’s claims involved the distinction between the classical and the grotesque body. The classical body is whole and marbled-like: it is impenetrable. It is typically coded as masculine. The grotesque body, on the other hand, is porous, open to the elements. It both influences and is influenced by other bodies and agents in the environment. In Midsummer, no single body is classical, if only because the environment and other agents (i.e., the love juice) enter one’s self. No one, that is, can withstand the temperament of the woods, even the fairies who ostensibly bring about this ecological disorder.
If, in the other plays we’ve read this semester, there are no gods or supernatural agents influencing the human actors, in Midsummer we have an abundance of them. Shakespeare borrows from a multitude of sources for his fairies, and they are both reminescent of medieval romance and yet also include many elements of English folklore. Robin Goodfellow, to make matters more complex, is of a different sort than the other fairies, more like a hobgoblin or a brownie—he is a trickster spirit who delights in confusion. He is also called Puck, which was a spirit closely identified with the devil. One of Titania’s fairies calls him “lob of spirits” (2.1.16), with the term lob meaning bumpkin or rustic. Robin embraces his identity, recalling the many pranks he enacts: “I am that merry wander of the night” (2.1.43). He is satyr-like in the woodcut accompanying the tract Robin Goodfellow: His Mad Pranks and Merry Jests (1629).
The fairies also deliver some of the most poetic and playful language in the play. Shakespeare’s blank verse, we recall, means that it doesn’t rhyme. Expect in Midsummer, Shakespeare does utilize rhyme: 36% of the text is in rhymed verse, more than blank verse (Chaudhuri 109). One result of the rhyming can be a sense of over-acting, or true emotional distance from the words articulated, as in Hermia’s injunction to Lysander: “Keep word, Lysander. We must starve our sight / From lovers’ food till morrow deep midnight” (1.1.222-223). But rhyming also lends Midsummer its musical quality, its appropriate playfulness. One of Titania’s fairies enters with a rhyming song of whimsy:
Over hill, over dale,
Thorough bush, thorough brier,
Over park, over pale,
Thorough flood, thorough fire (2.1.2-5).
Robin’s language frequently is both rhymed and short, conveying a sense of sing-song delight in language and its unnaturalness arising from a supernatural figure:
Captain of our fairy band,
Helena is here at hand,
And the youth mistook by me
Pleading for a lover’s fee.
Shall we their fond pageant see?
Lord, what fools these mortals be! (3.2.110-115).
Nonetheless, as I do for most plays, I can’t help but notice the darker elements to this play. It’s something I hope you consider and either agree or disagree with me on—despite the fact that this is a beloved play, particularly for children productions, there are aspects of Midsummer that hint at much more menacing realities, including the prospect of demonic or magical manipulation, sexual violence, and patriarchal stifling of women’s voices. What I want to argue to you, however, is that this tension I’m characterizing in the play between its comedic and sometimes downright funny play and its lyricism through its rhyme, against its specters of violence and dominance, might coexist. We don’t have to dismiss one or the other perspectives to acknowledge that this is a deeply provocative play, one so focused on the power of the imagination and dramatic art to sway the passions, delight one’s senses, and yet comment on existing faultlines in society.
First, notably, is the royal presence framing the play, namely, Theseus and Hippolyta. Theseus reminds his bride that “I wooed thee with my sword, / And won thy love doing thee injuries” (1.1.16-17). We should note the phallic imagery here, and the scene might be played with seething resentment on the part of the captive Hippolyta, or perhaps she learns throughout the course of the play to accept her new husband. Certainly in Acts 4 and 5, she is on an intellectual plane equal to that of her partner. Nonetheless, it is hard to ignore the fact that this comedy begins with an unconventional pairing, one in which the ruling couple met in bloodshed rather than in any courtly setting. Theseus perhaps attempts to mitigate this martial past, for he “will wed thee in another key, / With pomp, with triumph, and with revelling” (1.1.17-18). Such promises, however, are deferred, for another conflict emerges almost immediately, and we will see Theseus not only as the formal lover, but also as the ruler, deciding the fate of Hermia. Hermia, we learn, loves Lysander. But her father, Egeus, demands that she marry instead the interchangeable Demetrius. Lysander, for example, does not explicitly say he is better than Demetrius. He is only equal:
I am, my lord, as well derived as he,
As well possessed; my love is more than his,
My fortunes every way as fairly ranked
(If not with vantage) as Demetrius’ (1.1.99-102)
Indeed, many figures are interchangeable throughout the play, and they lack the emotional depth of Shakespeare’s other lovers. Like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, audiences and readers often confuse not only Demetrius and Lysander, but the similarly-named Hermia and Helena. Beyond inconsequential physical differences (Hermia is shorter than Helena), the two women are also often confused, and the plot emphasizes this lack of distinction from the fact that both women are loved by the two men at various moments in the play. Additionally, theaters often double the roles of Hippolyta and Titania and Theseus and Oberon, in which the terrestrial rulers differ only in kind from the supernatural fairy couple.
In pointing to similiarities, however, it is also crucial that we identify the differences. Certainly Hermia is strong-willed and confident in her lover’s faith to her. And Helena is contrained by her affection (or obsession) for Demeterius. In one of the most painful lines of the play, when Helena trudges after Demetrius: “I am your spaniel, and Demetrius, / the more you beat me, I will fawn on you” (2.1.203-204). In turn, Demetrius responds with scorn, threatening sexual violence to Helena:
You do impeach your modesty too much,
To leave the city and commit yourself
Into the hands of one that loves you not,
To trust the opportunity of night
And the ill counsel of a desert place
With the rich worth of your virginity. (2.1.214-219).
Interestingly, Helena then uses ancient myth to express the contrariety of her situation, in which “Apollo flies, and Daphne holds the chase” (2.1.231). But of course, in the original myth, Apollo chased Daphne in order to rape her, and, as we’ve already considered, the woods are a much more sinister space than we might originally anticipate. This is not the land of pastoral: there are no shepherds or morris dancers, as Titania reminds us. And Oberon watching over this scene is, like so many of the scenes in this play, one of spying, of utilizing the cover of the woods to gaze upon other individuals, perhaps to shape or manipulate them in some ways.
Thus Oberon, intervening in Helena and Demetrius’s relationship, is like Theseus, distantly dictating what should happen to whom, or how one’s affections should be directed. And yet he too lack complete control over this environment, and Robin of course mis-applies the love-in-idleness to Lysander instead of Demetrius.
To return to the language of patriarchal control, I want us to first think about Theseus. Bland as he might be, he is confident in his ready rule over the affairs of the state, which extend to private matters of the marriage of his citizens. As he warns Hermia:
Be advised, fair maid.
To you your father should be as a god,
One that composed your beauties; yea, and one
To whom you are but as a form in wax,
By him imprinted, and within his power
To leave the figure, or disfigure it. (1.1.46-51).
Imagining Hermia as the raw matter upon which her father has imprinted his image is a disturbing simile. The “but” highlights Hermia’s insignificance in this game of matchmaking: “you are but as a form.” And Egeus’s presumed power to then “disfigure” his daughter warns her of his wrath should she not marry the man of his choosing. Hermia, however, does express some resistance to this ideology, asking Theseus what she must suffer if she refuses Demetrius. In Theseus’s words:
Either to die the death, or to abjure
For ever the society of men.
Therefore, fair Hermia, question your desires,
Know of your youth, examine well your blood
Whether, if you yield not to your father’s choice,
You can endure the livery of a nun,
For aye to be in shady cloister mewed
To live a barren sister all your life,
Chanting faint hymns to the cold fruitless moon.
Thrice blessed 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. (1.1.65-78)
These are dangerous stakes for the body of one woman. Theseus offers her three choices—to marry Demetrius, to die, or to live as a nun. But he figures women as ruled by their bodies, as creatures of lust and desire. Rare, he thinks it is, for a woman to submit to a lifetime of virginity. Better to have sex with someone rather than waste such beauty (notice how many times Theseus refers to Hermia as fair, insisting primarily on her beauty).
If both Theseus and Oberon attempt to orchestrate various pairings in a satisfactory manner, the supernaturalism of the environment refuses to comply, as do the other characters in the play. We thus need to also consider the many relationships in the play that do not fit the comedic model. The starkest, of course, is Titania and Bottom, but first let’s think about the others. For one, there is the suggestion of a former tight bond between Helena and Hermia, perhaps suggesting lesbianism, but certainly suggesting a feminine bond that excluded male presences. As Helena reminds Hermia,
Is all the counsel that we two have shared,
The sisters’ vows, the hours that we have spent,
When we have chid the hasty-footed time
For parting us—O, is all forgot?
We, Hermia, like two artificial gods,
Have with our needles created both one flower,
Both on one sampler, sitting on one cushion,
Both warbling of one song, both in one key,
As if our hands, our sides, voices and minds
Had been incorporate. So we grew together
Like to a double cherry, seeming parted
But yet an union in partition,
Two lovely berries moulded on one stem;
So with two seeming bodies but one heart,
Two of the first, like coats in heraldry,
Due but to one, and crowned with one crest.
And will you rent our ancient love asunder
To join with men in scorning your poor friend?
It is not friendly, ’tis not maidenly.
Our sex, as well as I, may chide you for it,
Though I alone do feel the injury. (3.2.198-119).
Helena conjures an image of hermaphroditism here, of two female bodies acting as one in defiance of the standard ideal of husband and wife becoming one through marriage. This is a relationship that no longer exists, and the magical woods and the wayward affections of Lysander and Demetrius (caused by the love juice) have perverted this beautiful image of togetherness that Helena crafts.
Another female relationship is hinted at but not staged. Titania refers to the pregnant votaress, who died in childbirth. She now keeps the “Indian boy” for herself, but Oberon desires the boy too (Why? Is this sexualized or merely an act of possession over what Titania loves?). As Robin explains, the boy is the source of the conflict between the royal fairy couple:
The king doth keep his revels here tonight.
Take heed the queen come not within his sight;
For Oberon is passing fell and wrath
Because that she, as her attendant, hath
A lovely boy stolen, from an Indian king:
She never had so sweet a changeling.
And jealous Oberon would have the child
Knight of his train, to trace the forests wild.
But she perforce withholds the loved boy,
Crowns him with flowers, and makes him all her joy.
And now, they never meet in grove or green,
By fountain clear or spangled starlight sheen,
But they do square, that all their eleves, for fear,
Creep into acorn cups and hide them there. (2.1.18-31).
Scholars have discussed the colonialist hints in the fact that this is an Indian boy, whose identity we learn more of from Titania.
The fairy land buys not the child of me.
His mother was a votaress of my order;
And in the spiced Indian air by night,
Full often hath she gossiped by my side,
And sat with me on Neptune’s yellow sands
Marking th’embarked traders on the flood,
When we have laughed to see the sails conceive
And grow big-bellied with the wanton wind,
Which she with pretty and with swimming gait
Following (her womb then rich with my young squire)
Would imitate, and sail upon the land
To fetch me trifles and return again
As from a voyage, rich with merchandise.
But she, being mortal, of that boy did die,
And for her sake do I rear up her boy;
And for her sake, I will not part with him. (2.1.121-137).
Reminding us of procreation, these lines and the ghost of the votaress are in stark contrast to the threat of becoming cloistered that Hermia faces. These lines are not erotic, though they are exotic, and they point to a life beyond the scope of the play, one in which Titania enjoys the company of an Indian woman with “pretty and with swimming gait” amuses the Fairy Queen. Before the irruption of men, the women in this play lived among other women, as Hippolyta did as Queen of the all-female tribe the Amazons. These female bonds are outside the scope of the hierarchized and sexualized economy of Athens or even of Oberon’s rule. Despite the fact that both Titania and Oberon have had human lovers, what is at stake for the King of the Fairies is not faithfulness, but ownership, or the ability to dictate who owns whom. We find this source in the tussle over the Indian boy, but it extends to Oberon’s intervention in the relationships of the lovers.
It is characteristic of dreams to also deny or overturn normal orders. For a play with “Dream” in the title, there are few actual dreamers onstage, though perhaps we might, with Robin, consider the entire play as a dream-sequence. Of the dreams we do learn of, they are disturbing, featuring the entry of the animal kingdom into human affairs. For Hermia, her nightmare is both phallic and symbolic of the potential masculine violence women are subjected to throughout the play:
Help me, Lysander, help me: do thy best
To pluck this crawling serpent from my breast.
Ay me, for pity! What a dream was here!
Lysander, look how I do quake with fear.
Methought a serpent ate my heart away,
And you sat smiling at his cruel prey. (2.2.149-154).
What does this particular dream suggest to you? Do we have to be Freudians in this moment to read through the symbolism of the passage? In Shakespeare’s time, as now, dreams were thought to be reflections of inner anxieties, but they usually were about the future instead of the past. We tend to think of dreams as a way of processing the past and thinking through events that have usually already occurred. For early moderns, on the other hand, dreams could be prophetic, and could signal what is about to occur (think about, for example, Calpurnia’s dream in Julius Caesar).
Of course, the Artisans also do not fit this comedic model. Instead, they serve to remind us of the artificiality of the scene played before us, particularly in their emphasis on literalism. In preparing The Most Lamentable Comedy and Most Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisbe, the Artisans focus on what can and cannot be represented to the fancy, a term that appears so insistently throughout the play. We see such literalism in the debate over whether the moon shines on the night of the performance. Snout asks the practical question of when the moon will be full, to which Bottom calls for “A calendar, a calendar: look in the almanac. / Find out moonshine, find out moonshine” (3.1.47-48). I’m fascinated by the idea of an almanac as a prop. We saw Ovid’s Metamorphoses as another textual prop in Titus Andronicus. But here the textual prop is much less illustrious. Almanacs were widely popular in the early modern period, trailing only Bibles in their print. So I’ve brought us a few almanacs from the period to show you what they look like and why they might be important documents in this moment. One of my arguments is that when Quince pulls out an almanac he is reminding us of Titania’s speech about the topsy-turvy environment, an environment that is itself experiencing a type of monstrous carnival in its irregularity. The almanac promises to dissect precisely the behavior of the environment, but it does not in this moment account for the presence of supernatural beings. Nonetheless, almanacs in the period argued strongly for the validity of astrology as a method for understanding the external world. Such a system involved the belief that the stars shed direct influence on terrestrial bodies. So I don’t think it’s a coincidence that such a text is produced onstage in this moment, only a few lines before the supernatural Robin effects the transformation of Bottom into an ass.
Finally, we are left with our first day’s discussion with everything falling out, in Robin’s words, “preposterously” (3.2.121). Both Lysander and Demetrius now sue for Helena’s love, while Hermia is scorned by the two men who both previously professed their love to her. Hence arises the conflicts between the two former female friends and the two men.
For our second day of Midsummer, I want us to think once more about the carnivalesque in this play. For our reading, we return back to Athens, and all is make neat and well by the fact that the couples are happily married. But there are also tensions within this ostensibly happy comedic ending, and we of course also witness the Artisans’ production. Some have asked why the play feels like it really ends at Act IV—Act V, with the performance of Pyramus and Thisbe, might read as superfluous to some extent. But thematically, the bumbling performance of the Artisans is central to the play, and I hope we can devote more attention to Bottom and Crew during our class session today.
There is the sense in Act IV that the space of the woods, of carnival, of overturning hierarchies, has gone too far. Oberon, witnessing Titania’s enforced infatuation with Bottom, acknowledges the excesses of his “punishment” for her:
Her dotage now I do begin to pity.
For, meeting her of late behind the wood
Seeking sweet favors for this hateful fool,
I did upbraid her and fall out with her.
For she his hairy temples then had rounded
With coronet of fresh and fragrant flowers;
And that same dew, which sometime on the buds
Was wont to swell like round and orient pearls,
Stood now within the pretty flowerets’ eyes
Like tears that did their own disgrace bewail.
When I had at my pleasure taunted her,
And she in mild terms begged my patience,
I then did ask of her her changeling child,
Which straight she gave me, and her fairy sent
To bear him to my bower in Fairyland.
And, now I have the boy, I will undo
This hateful imperfection of her eyes.
And, gentle Puck, take this transformed scalp
From off the head of this Athenian swain,
That he, awaking when the other do,
May all to Athens back again repair,
And think no more of this night’s accidents
But as the fierce vexation of a dream. (4.1.45-68).
You could stage this speech in different ways, with Oberon expressing acute jealously over the intimacy that Titania and Bottom have shared. Perhaps the joke that Bottom is “hung like a donkey” is also at play here. Certainly, however “hateful” (a word Oberon uses twice) is, Bottom’s very hatefulness is also a reflection upon the Fairy King. Titania, that is, might prefer the bestial Bottom instead of her cold and calculating consort. And there’s something abrupt about Titania and Oberon’s reconciliation. We do not witness his relation to her of the night’s events. We are not privy, that is, to the potential tensions that such a reconciliation is likely to suffer.
Of course, because we are in a dream-world, it might be unfair to ask to learn of their reconciliation from the play. And perhaps, because fairies do not occupy the same realm as the humans, such ethical questions are beside the point. In the second half of the play, Midsummer insists upon the act of “un-charming” or undoing the effects of the woods and carnival. The four lovers stare at each other in amazement and attempt to interpret what has occurred.
Demetrius: These things seem small and undistinguishable,
Like far-off mountains turned into clouds.
Hermia: Methinks I see these things with parted eye,
When everything seems double.
Helena: So methinks;
And I have found Demetrius like a jewel,
Mine own, and not mine own.
Demetrius: Are you sure
That we are awake? It seems to me
That yet we sleep, we dream. Do not you think
The Duke was here, and bid us follow him?
Hermia: Yea, and my father.
Helena: And Hippolyta.
Lysander: And he did bid us follow to the temple.
Demetrius: Why, then, we are awake. Let’s follow him,
And by the way let us recount our dreams. (4.1.186-198).
Notice how often the words “methinks” and “seems” appear in these lines. The lovers are recalling an experience that can only be described in the conditional. Helena’s acknowledgement that Demetrius is “mine own, and not mine own” reminds us, however, of the residual effects of the fairy influence. Demetrius, as scholars have pointed out, is still technically under the influence of the love-in-idleness. He has not been given another potion to uncharm his eyes, and thus, if we wish to be literal about it, his love is still chimerical.
Bottom, too, lacks the language to conceptualize his experiences. Directly following the lovers’ confused wrestling with their experiences, Bottom articulates his confusion:
When my cue comes, call me, and I will answer. My next is “Most fair Pyramus.” Heigh-ho! Peter Quince! Flute, the bellows mender! Snout, the tinker! Starveling! God’s my life, stolen hence and left me asleep! I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream, past the wit of man to say what dream it was. Man is but an ass if he go about to expound this dream. Methought I was—there is no man can tell what. Methought I was—and methought I had—but man is but a patched fool if he will offer to say what methought I had. The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report, what my dream was. I will get Peter Quince to write a ballad of this dream. It shall be called “Bottom’s Dream,” because it hath no bottom; and I will sing it in the latter end of a play, before the Duke. Peradventure, to make it the more gracious, I shall sing it at her death. (4.1.199-217).
Interestingly, Bottom is closer to the truth here, and his confusion of the bodily senses shows us in part what the fairies and the environment have brought about. And the ballad seems much more fitting for such a merry misadventure than the lovers’ attempts to rationalize their night. We too, are asses, Bottom suggests, if we attempt to apply a rational framework to the woods outside of Athens. It defies logic, something that Theseus refuses to countenance. In the Duke’s famous speech on the tricks of the imagination, he attempts to dismantle and bring into order all of the previous night’s confusions:
Hippolyta: ’Tis strange, my Theseus, that these lovers speak of.
Theseus: More strange than true. I never may believe
These antique fables nor these fairy toys.
Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.
The lunatic, the lover, and the poet
Are of imagination all compact.
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold;
That is the madman. The lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt.
The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
Such tricks hath strong imagination
That, if it would but apprehend some joy,
It comprehends some bringer of that joy;
Or in the night, imagining some fear,
How easy is a bush supposed a bear! (5.1.1-22).
Let’s spend some time dissecting this speech. But we should not discount Hippolyta’s objection.
Hippolyta: But all the story of the night told over,
And all their minds transfigured so together,
More witnesseth than fancy’s images
And grows to something of great constancy;
But, howsoever, strange and admirable. (5.1.23-27)
So ultimately whose team are we on here? Don’t we want more of the “strange and admirable”? Isn’t that the stuff of theater?
And what we do see is the delightful makings of artifice, through the Artisans’ performance of Pyramus and Thisbe. I must admit that I find the interjections of the upper-classes to the play condescending and downright rude. But we have to remember that Shakespeare’s own audiences were not polite and quiet, and a boisterous, responsive crowd at the very least shows that they are paying attention. And Bottom reminds Theseus of this convention, speaking back confidentally to the Duke. In response to Theseus’s joke that the Wall should respond to Pyramus’s insult, Bottom breaks the fourth wall: “No, in truth, sir, he should not” (5.1.183). Bottom is teaching Theseus how the stage works, and, unwillingly, admonishing the Duke for his crude joke.
Oddly, for the spokesman against imagination, Theseus also urges that we use it during the performance. Perhaps in the safe space of a clear mode of artifice—the theater—we should employ that faculty. As Theseus tells Hippolyta: “The best in this kind are but shadows; and the worst are no worse, if imagination amend them” (5.1.210-211).
Let’s spend some time thinking about the very last moments of the play, in which Puck, Oberon, and Titania bless the lovers. And, finally, let’s look at the Epilogue, which has so much to tell us about our experiences.
If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumbered here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend.
If you pardon, we will mend.
And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearned luck
Now to scape the serpent’s tongue,
We will make amends ere long;
Else the Puck a liar call.
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends. (Epilogue)