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About this book

This introductory guide to one Shakespeare's most read and performed plays offers a scene-by-scene theatrically aware commentary, a brief history of the text and first performances, case studies of key performances and productions, a survey of film and TV adaptations, and a wide sampling of critical opinion and annotated further reading.

Table of Contents

1. The Text and Early Performances

Abstract
We cannot know for certain when Shakespeare wrote A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but it was well-enough known by 1598 for Francis Meres to include it in his commonplace book, Palladis Tamia: Wit’s Treasury, as an example of the playwright’s ‘excellence’ in writing comedies. The play was not published until 1600, so Meres’ comments not only reflect its success on stage, but also set the latest possible date for its composition. It is generally agreed that the maturity of style in the writing and control of the dramatic and theatrical structure suggest the play should be placed at the end of the sequence of comedies Shakespeare wrote in the 1590s: The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Taming of the Shrew, The Comedy of Errors andLove’s Labour’s Lost (which themselves cannot be firmly dated). Opinions differ on whether Romeo and Juliet (which was published in 1597) preceded or followed the comedy, but I have taken the view that the tragedy is the earlier play.
Martin White

2. Commentary

Abstract
Reading an old play, especially one as well known as this, and trying to do so as if, in Trevor Nunn’s phrase, it has just come through the letterbox, is not easy. Nor is it that straightforward to put to the back of one’s mind the books and critical essays one has read, or the performances one has seen or — even harder — been part of. But while study and performance can be of considerable help in broadening our understanding of the text or seeing alternative ways of doing things, both are also likely to narrow our initial response to the play. In other words, it is important, first of all, to try to explore every little corner of the text, always bearing in mind that it will be full of signals to the actors that will help them shape the performance. At the same time (the lovers’ quarrel in the wood is a good example, the mechanicals’ play a better one) each performance will find small details of physical action and ‘business’ that arise from the particular circumstances of the director’s ideas or the actors’ inventiveness in rehearsal and there is no point in my trying to forecast or prescribe (or indeed, proscribe) these.
Martin White

3. The Play’s Sources and Cultural Context

Abstract
Samuel Taylor Coleridge described Shakespeare as ‘myriad-minded’, and it is an apt phrase to describe the range of sources and influences that the playwright drew on for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Indeed, the play is unusual — Love’s Labour’s Lost and The Tempest are the only other examples — in that Shakespeare used no single source for the main narrative or characters but drew — at times quite extensively, at others with simply a hint or glancing reference — from numerous literary works, contemporary ideas and beliefs, reports of public entertainments and events, his own experience of theatrical practices, the Warwickshire countryside and his knowledge of its folklore. To give a sense of this diversity I have selected elements of the play, and provided brief extracts from appropriate sources, some of which appear to have directly influenced Shakespeare.
Martin White

4. Key Productions and Performances

Abstract
The playhouses in London were closed by Order of Parliament in 1642, and professional playing all but ceased — certainly publicly — until the Restoration of Charles II in 1660. When the theatres reopened, a number of the defining characteristics of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama and theatre practice had changed or were coming under pressure to do so. Most striking to theatre-goers would undoubtedly have been the presence of actresses on the public stage, the absence of open-air playhouses, and the introduction of painted, changeable scenery on the stages of the intimate, indoor, candle-lit theatres that had survived the interregnum. The dearth of new plays, too, meant that those from pre-war days continued to provide the bulk of the repertoire, though often in radically altered adaptations and with someone else’s name on the playbill, as the work of the earlier writers was so little known that the adapters were able to get away with their unacknowledged plagiarism.
Martin White

5. The Play on Screen

Abstract
A Midsummer Night’s Dream has been adapted for cinema and television more than 30 times, and so this chapter will of necessity have to be very selective. (See Douglas Lanier, 2007, for an extensive discussion of the wide range of adaptation of the play in different print and electronic media.) I shall concentrate on filmed or televised versions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream itself, but the play has also frequently been appropriated by a range of films for very different purposes, such as Woody Allen’s A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy (1982), Peter Weir’s Dead Poets Society (1989), Tommy O’Haver’s teen-flick, Get Over It (2001), and Gil Cates Jr’s A Midsummer Night’s Rave (2002), which in turn draws its cast from a range of teen movies in a plot loosely woven from Shakespeare’s play. Though brief, perhaps the most intriguing example of this kind of appropriation is Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death (1946), in which a dead pilot, played by David Niven, finds himself in heaven, where he witnesses a rehearsal of A Midsummer Night’s Dream involving a cast of British and American airmen that offers a rare insight into different contemporary, and national, attitudes to how Shakespeare should be performed. The play has also attracted makers of animation fi lms, notably the Czech director Jir’ Trnka’s brilliant 1959 version and, more recently, the version included in the first series (1992) of the excellent Welsh-Russian co-produced Animated Tales from Shakespeare.
Martin White

6. Critical Assessments

Abstract
Although William Hazlitt firmly believed that Shakespeare’s Richard III could ‘be considered as properly a stage-play: it belongs to the theatre, rather than to the closet’ (1906, p. 173), he took a diametrically opposite view of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This, for Hazlitt, was a play of the mind, to be read, not staged, since:
when acted, [it] is converted into a dull pantomime. All that is finest in the play is lost in the representation, [since] Poetry and the stage do not agree well together, [and that] which was merely an airy shape, a dream, a passing thought, immediately becomes an unmanageable reality.… Where all is left to the imagination (as in the case of reading) every circumstance, near or remote, has an equal chance of being kept in mind.… The boards of a theatre and the regions of fancy are not the same thing. (102–3)
Martin White
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