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'A MIDSUMMER-Night's DREAM' was first printed in 1600. In that year there appeared two editions of the play ;—the one published by Thomas Fisher, a bookseller; the other by James Roberts, a printer. The differences between these two editions are very slight. The play was not reprinted after 1600, till it was collected into the folio of 1623; and the text in that edition differs in few instances from that of the quartos.
Malone has assigned the composition of 'A Midsummer-Night's Dream' to the year 1594. We are not disposed to dissent from this; but we entirely object to the reasons upon which Malone attempts to show that it was one of our author's " earliest attempts in comedy." It appears to us a misapplication of the received meaning of words, to talk of “the warmth of a youthful and lively imagination” with reference to 'A Midsummer-Night's Dream' and the Shakspere of thirty. Of all the dramas of Shakspere there is none more entirely harmonious than 'A Midsummer Night's Dream. All the incidents, all the characters, are in perfect subordination to the will of the poet. “Throughout the whole piece," says Malone, “the more exalted characters are subservient to the interests of those beneath them.” Precisely so. An unpractised author-one who had not “a youthful and lively imagination” under perfect control—when he had
got hold of the Theseus and Hippolyta of the heroic ages, would have made them ultra-heroical. They would have commanded events, instead of moving with the supernatural influence around them in harmony and proportion. An immature poet, again, if the marvellous creation of Oberon and Titania and Puck could have entered into such a mind, would have laboured to make the power of the fairies produce some strange and striking events. But the exqui. site beauty of Shakspere's conception is, that, under the supernatural influence, “the human mortals” move precisely according to their respective natures and habits. Demetrius and Lysander are impatient and revengeful ;--Helena is dignified and affectionate, with a spice of female error ;-Hermia is somewhat vain and shrewish. And then Bottom! Who but the most skilful artist could have given us such a character? Of him Malone says, "Shakspeare would naturally copy those manners first with which he was first acquainted. The ambition of a theatrical candidate for applause he has happily ridiculed in Bottom the weaver." A theatrical candidate for applause! Why, Bottom the weaver is the representative of the whole human race. His confidence in his own power is equally profound, whether he exclaims, “Let me play the lion too;" or whether he sings alone, " that they shall
hear I am not afraid ;" or whether, conscious that he is surrounded with spirits, he cries out, with his voice of authority, “Where 's Peas-blossom ?" In every situation Bottom is the same,—the same personification of that self-love which the simple cannot con. ceal, and the wise can with difficulty suppress. Lastly, in the whole rhythmical structure of the versification, the poet has put forth all his strength. We venture to offer an opinion that, if any single composition were required to exhibit the power of the English language for purposes of poetry, that composition would be the MidsummerNight's Dream. This wonderful model, which, at the time it appeared, must have been the commencement of a great poetical revolution,-and which has never ceased to influence our higher poetry, from Fletcher to Shelley,—was, according to Malone, the work of "the genius of Shakspeare, even in its minority."
“This is the silliest stuff that ever I heard,” says Hippolyta, when Wall has “discharged” his part. The answer of Theseus is full of instruction :-"The best in this kind are but shadows; and the worst are no worse if imagination amend them.” It was in this humble spirit that the great poet judged of his own matchless performances. He felt the utter inadequacy of his art, and indeed of any art, to produce its due effect upon the mind, unless the imagination, to which it addressed itself, was ready to convert the shadows which it presented into living forms of truth and beauty. “I am convinced,” says Coleridge, “that Shakspeare availed himself of the title of this play in his own mind and worked upon it as a dream throughout." The poet says so in express words :
"If we shadows have offended,
Think but this (and all is mended),
That you have but slumber'd here,
Gentles, do not reprehend." But to understand this dream-to have all its gay, and soft, and harmonious colours impressed upon the vision—to hear all the golden cadences of its poesy-to feel the perfect congruity of all its parts, and thus to receive it as a truth-we must not suppose that it will enter the mind amidst the lethargic slumbers of the imagination. We must receive it,
“As youthful poets dream On summer eves by haunted stream." To offer an analysis of this subtle and ethereal drama would, we believe, be as unsatisfactory as the attempts to associate it with the realities of the stage. With scarcely an exception, the proper understanding of the other plays of Shakspere may be assisted by connecting the apparently separate parts of the action, and by developing and reconciling what seems obscure and anomalous in the features of the characters. But to follow out the caprices and illusions of the loves of Demetrius and Lysander,—of Helena and Hermia ;-to reduce to prosaic description the consequence of the jealousies of Oberon and Titania ;— to trace the Fairy Queen under the most fantastic of deceptions, where grace and vulgarity blend together like the Cupids and Chimeras of Raphael's Arabesques ;—and, finally, to go along with the scene till the illusions disappear-till the lovers are happy, and "sweet bully Bottom” is reduced to an ass of human dimensions; such an attempt as this would be worse even than unreverential criticism. No,- the
Midsummer-Night's Dream' must be left to its own influences.
HERMIA, daughter to Egeus, in love with
Act IV. se. 1. Act V. sc. 1.
Act IV. sc. 1. Act V. sc. 1.
Act IV. sc. 1. Act V. sc. 2.
Act IV. sc. 1. Act V. sc. 2.
Act IV. sc. 1. Act V. sc. 2. PEAS-BLOSSOM, COBWEB, MOTH, MUSTARD
SEED, fairies. Appear, Act III. sc. 1. Act IV. sc. 1. Pyramus, Thisbe, Wall, Moonshine, Lion,
characters in the Interlude performed
Appear, Act V. sc. 1.
THESEUS, Duke of Athens.
EGEUS, father to Hermia.
LYSANDER, in love with Hermia.
Act IV. sc. 1. Act V. sc. I.
Act IV. sc. 1. Act V. se. 1.
Appears, Act I. sc. 1. Act V. sc. 1.
QUINCE, the carpenter.
SNUG, the joiner.
BOTTOM, the weaver.
FLUTE, the bellows-mender.
SNOUT, the tinker.
STARVELING, the tailor.
SCENE, -ATHENS, AND A WOOD NEAR.
The old editions have no List of Characters.