Page images

" Re

livens with fairy dances. There are fairy dances and songs in Lyly's Endymion, which was printed in 1591, and Lyly in the prologue to The Woman in the Moon says, member all is but a poet's dream" a hint which Shakespeare seems to have used in the title of this play and in Puck's epilogue. Lyly's habit of identifying his characters with contemporaneous persons is adopted by Shakespeare to the extent of an obvious reference to Queen Elizabeth in II. i. 155–168 as the “fair vestal throned by the west," against whom Cupid's shafts are powerless:

The imperial votaress passed on,

In maiden meditation, fancy-free. But whether there is an allusion here to a particular assault made upon Elizabeth's heart by the Earl of Leicester at the famous Kenilworth festivities of 1575 is open to question. Kenilworth is not far from Stratford, and Shakespeare may have been present; but even if this were so, he evidently refreshed his memory of what he had seen as a boy of eleven by reading Gascoigne's pamphlet, The Princely Pleasures of Kenilworth Castle (published in 1576 and again in 1587), to which the passage in A MidsummerNight's Dream bears some striking resemblances in points of detail, as I have endeavored to show in The Modern Language Review, IV, 231. The writer may be permitted to refer the reader to another paper of his on “The Masque in Shakspere's Plays” in Archiv für das Studium der neueren Sprachen und Literaturen, CXXV, 71, in which reasons are given for not accepting the current view that A Midsummer-Night's Dream approximates to the type of the Elizabethan masque. For the Elizabethan masque

[ocr errors]

as Shakespeare knew it, and introduced it in his plays, Romeo and Juliet (I. iv. 3), and the note thereon in the Tudor edition of that play, may be consulted with advantage

Style. There are more rhymes than blank verse in A Midsummer-Night's Dream, and its lyrical excellence is a perpetual joy to any one who has an ear for “concord of sweet sounds.” Even the blank verse has an uplifting and enthralling music, as if Shakespeare were giving full rein to his youthful mastery of a full-toned instrument. We have not indeed the orchestral effects of his later manner, for the range of the chords he uses is comparatively limited; but in its own kind of poetry the play was and is still unsurpassed. Meredith described one of the most delightful chapters of Richard Feverel as “A diversion played upon a Penny Whistle," and with some extension of, and apology for, the metaphor, it might be applied without derogation to this play. “Love's musical instrument is as old, and as poor : it has but two stops; and yet, you see, the cunning musician does thus much with it!” Shakespeare takes his young lovers even less seriously than Meredith does his in this famous chapter, and yet he has touched the pipes with such power that A Midsummer-Night's Dream might stand, in Edgar Allan Poe's opinion, for a definition of poetry.

Stage History. - No other comedy (if we except references to Falstaff) had anything like so many allusions made to it up to 1649; its lines are imitated or echoed by Dekker, Ford, Chapman, Marston, Fletcher, and Massinger; it was evidently, from the beginning, a very popular play. In 1602 a burlesque called Narcissus, obviously imitated from the interlude of Pyramus and Thisbe, was acted at St. John's College, Oxford; and in 1631 the Bishop of Lincoln was accused of having A Midsummer-Night's Dream acted at his house on Sunday evening for his private delectation, to the great scandal of his Puritan enemies. Under the Commonwealth the jests of Bottom the Weaver were presented by stealth, “under pretence of rope-dancing, or the like," and immediately after the Restoration, an enterprising publisher, “considering the general mirth that is likely very suddenly to happen about the King's Coronation,” hastened to offer the public “ The Merry conceited Humors of Bottom the Weaver, as It hath been often publikely Acted by sone of his Majesties Comedians, and lately, privately, presented, by several Apprentices for their harmless recreation, with Great Applause.” The play had also by this time obtained a hold in Germany, probably through the visits of the English actors, for in 1663 there was printed a Schimpfspiel or Pasquinade by Andreas Gryphius, entitled Absurda Comica, or Herr Peter Squentz, which is largely taken from the low comedy part of A Midsummer-Night's Dream, though Bottom loses his leadership to Pickleherring, and his name to “ Bulla Butain,” bellows-maker. The English public of the Restoration theaters apparently lost its sense of humor along with its taste for poetry, for Evelyn wrote in his Diary in 1661 (having seen Hamlet acted) now the old plays began to disgust this refined age, since his Majesty's being so long abroad," and Pepys enters under the date September 29, 1662: “To the King's Theatre, where saw A Midsummer-Night's Dream, which I had never seen before, nor shall ever


again, for it is the most insipid ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life.” In 1692 the comedy furnished the libretto for an opera, with instrumental and vocal parts by Purcell, and dances by Priest, in which a Chinese, a Chinese woman, and six monkeys appeared; “ the Court and town were wonderfully satisfied with it." These farcical and operatic features vied for prominence during the eighteenth-century performances; in one Bottom and bis companions were omitted, in another “ Theseus and all the serious characters." An operatic revival in 1816 stated that the play had not been acted for fifty years, and the English critics of the first half of the nineteenth century, from Hazlitt to Knight, agreed that A MidsummerNight's Dream was unmanageable for the stage. German theatrical managers were of the same opinion, and it was due to the enthusiasm of Ludwig Tieck, backed by the munificence of Frederick William IV, that the play at last received a fitting presentation at the Berlin Royal Theater in 1827, with the music that Mendelssohn had composed the year before. Mendelssohn's music was again used at a notable revival in London under Charles Kean in 1856, when “ Puck was acted by a child, a blond, roguish girl, about ten years old," who afterwards became a favorite Shakespearean actress under the name of Ellen Terry. During the last half century revivals have been numerous, and modern resources in the way of lighting and scenery have made performances possible which would have struck Shakespeare's fellows at the Globe dumb with admiration. Bottom is still a notable part for a comic actor, and there is every sign that A Midsummer-Night's Dream will continue to hold its own both as an acting and as a reading play. Interpretation. — The comedy fortunately affords no opportunity to the ingenious critics for fantastic theories. Commentators have rarely withheld their meed of admiration, and though some have drawn attention to the incongruity of the material, it is the highest tribute to Shakespeare's skill that the ordinary reader, who looks only for enjoyment, does not notice it. It needed no slight art indeed to bring into the same canvas the heroes of Greek mythology in their medieval dress, the rude mechanicals, who were really Shakespeare's contemporaries, and the fairies, who belong to no time or place; only Shakespeare would have attempted such a task, and only Shakespeare could have done it successfully. Yet we are conscious of no trace of effort — only of a full tide of poetry and fun that carries everything before it. The plot is of the slightest and the youthful lovers are only sketched in; but who gives a thought to such considerations in reading or seeing the play? Theseus and Hippolyta are drawn with deeper and more powerful strokes, and Bottom and his companions are as much Shakespeare's own in their exquisite stupidity as the fairies are in their irresponsible daintiness. Those who look for the tragedy of “ bright things come to confusion ” will find it in Romeo and Juliet, which Shakespeare wrote about the same time; here he shows only the waywardness and folly of young love. However deeply he may sympathize with it in his heart, in this play (in so far as he ever identified himself with any of his characters) his point of view is rather that of Puck:

Lord, what fools these mortals be!

« PreviousContinue »