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About this book

A stimulating and comprehensive critical survey of the responses to A Midsummer Night's Dream, as well as the key debates and developments, from the seventeenth century to the present day. Leading the reader through material chronologically, the Guide explores the main themes and interpretations and draws on a rich range of critical writings.

Table of Contents

Introduction

Abstract
‘Now’ is the first word of the Dream, plunging us into the present of its fictional time: its last word is ‘amends’, in which we hear ‘end’ but which also carries the sense of a plurality of possible conclusions and further aims (‘ends’) and a suggestion that there are matters which may still need to be put right, amended, in this play of shadows, even though the lovers are now abed (though not, one hopes, asleep) and have the fairies’ blessing. Between those two words – those two worlds, perhaps – we have been plunged into a dizzying series of delays, conflicts, flights, dreams, visions, absurdities and awakenings; the proliferating masks of comedy have sometimes slipped to let us glimpse the open mouths and appalled eyes of tragedy; and, at a crucial stage of the play, the human mask has mutated into the beast-head of ancient ritual. At the end, we have witnessed a bravura performance by a magician who is, like Oberon, invisible to mortals, melting into the characters, the situations, the images which his flow of words, his sleights of hand, conjure up. How can we begin to understand this?
Nicolas Tredell

Chapter One. 1662–1898: Labyrinth of Enchantment

Abstract
The first and often-quoted critical remark on A Midsummer Night’s Dream – or on a particular production of the play – comes in an entry for 29 September 1662 in the diary of Samuel Pepys:
  • ■ [T]hen to the King’s Theatre, where we saw Midsummer nights dream, which I have never seen before, nor shall ever again, for it is the most insipid ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life.1
Nicolas Tredell

Chapter Two. 1900–49: Quest for Constancy

Abstract
In the early twentieth century, the study of English Literature began to emerge as an academic discipline in the UK and critical power started to move away from the man or woman of letters towards the critic employed in and speaking from a university. As a field of study seeking to establish its academic respectability, English Literature would certainly be likely to focus on its major asset, William Shakespeare, but it might not concentrate first on Shakespearean comedy, especially not on the Dream, whose fairies might make it look as though it had more in common with the whimsical play Peter Pan (1904) by the Scottish dramatist and novelist J. M. Barrie (1860–1937) than with serious and enduring literature. Not until the 1930s would a theory of Shakespearean comedy start to emerge. In the early part of the twentieth century, criticism of Shakespearean comedy – and of the Dream – was still the province of the man of letters more than the university teacher. Two key examples of Dream criticism which emerged in the 1900–25 period were from outside the academy. In 1904, the poet, novelist, journalist and essayist G. K. Chesterton made high claims for the Dream, and in 1925, the novelist, playwright and broadcaster J. B. Priestley – yet to emerge as the best-selling author of the novel The Good Companions (192 9) – took up a topic which, as we saw in the last chapter, already had a good pedigree: the figure of Bottom. After this, however, the critical initiative does pass to academic scholars and critics, with the work of Enid Welsford, G. Wilson Knight, Caroline Spurgeon and H. B. Charlton.
Nicolas Tredell

Chapter Three. The 1950s: Concord from Discord

Abstract
In the 1950s, literary criticism became an established academic discipline and also, at least in the minds of some of its practitioners, something rather more – a means of preserving a sense of value, stability and order in a fast-changing and deeply uncertain modern world, marked, at least in the UK, Western Europe and the US, by a paradoxical combination of the pleasures of increasing affluence and a dark apprehension of a cataclysm through nuclear war. There was a strong emphasis on those qualities in literary texts which marked them off from popular cultural forms and which seemed to conduce to a harmonious balance of opposing forces within an organic whole. This was often linked to a rejection of key aspects of contemporary society and a nostalgia, more or less explicit, for an idealized world of the past (prior to the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century and the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century) in which, it was believed, the dissociated sensibility which characterized modern experience had not existed and the lower orders were happily integrated into a social whole and posed no threat to the cultural practices of more elevated groups. In this context, there was an emphasis, in Dream interpretation, on those elements of the play which seemed to produce concord from discord, to create and support a hierarchical civilized order with which literary critics could identify themselves. This is evident in the first key reading of the Dream in the 1950s by Paul N. Seigel.
Nicolas Tredell

Chapter Four. The 1960s: Order and Outrage

Abstract
As we saw in the last chapter, a substantial body of criticism and scholarship had accumulated around the Dream by the end of the 1950s and this was extended in the early 1960s by the influential interpretations by Bertrand Evans, Frank Kermode, G. K. Hunter and R. W. Dent, which we shall consider first in this chapter. But the sense of a smoothly developing discourse, in which discords were resolved in ultimate concord, was shattered by the appearance, in 1964, of the translation of Jan Kott’s Shakespeare our Contemporary, a very sixties event in its capacity to disrupt, challenge, offend and provoke attempts to control and contain its disruptive force. The critical discourse around the Dream, however, continued to grow, even though it was now more conflicted and fragmented. The clearest sign of this increasing critical activity was the appearance, in the later 1960s, of two major books devoted to the play, by David Young and Stephen Fender. We shall consider these later in this chapter. We start our exploration of the exciting developments in Dream criticism in this decade with Bertrand Evans’s book which, following in the line of H. B. Charlton and John Russell Brown, considers the Dream within the broader context of Shakespearean comedy.
Nicolas Tredell

Chapter Five. The 1970s: Tongs and Bones

Abstract
The 1970s was a decade of transition in Anglo-American literary criticism, including the criticism of Shakespeare and of the Dream. Older critical modes were still active and fruitful to some extent, while the new and revived ones which were to forge ahead in the 1980s had not yet emerged – but intimations of their rough music, the sound of the tongs and the bones (Bottom’s favoured instruments (4.1.29)) was starting to be heard. In this chapter, we shall first of all discuss Alexander Leggatt’s view of the Dream in his book Shakespeare’s Comedy of Love. We then explore Marjorie B. Garber’s focus, in 1974, on dream and metamorphosis in the play, discuss David Bevington’s essay, which seeks to assimilate but also to correct Kott, and consider the Marxist reading of Elliot Krieger, which offers a perspective on the craftsmen which had hardly been raised before.
Nicolas Tredell

Chapter Six. The 1980s: Shattering the Dream

Abstract
In the 1980s, provocative, stimulating, insightful and controversial readings of the Dream began to emerge and contributed to the great upheaval of Anglo-American literary studies, as post-structuralism, deconstruction, feminism, new historicism and revised forms of Marxism and psychoanalysis shattered – without wholly destroying – previously dominant modes of interpretation. It was not only a matter of an internal transformation of literary studies; social and political change also made an impact. The changes in attitudes to sexuality and gender which began in the 1960s and which, despite much opposition, have continued in some form ever since, meant that the idea that Shakespeare’s comedies ultimately affirmed marriage began to be regarded in a more sceptical light. In academic literary criticism, the residues of the aspirations to radical or revolutionary political change which had emerged in the 1960s led to a more interrogatory attitude towards the view that Shakespeare’s comedies reinforced social hierarchy – an attitude which intensified as hopes of political change in the contemporary world seemed increasingly blocked.
Nicolas Tredell

Chapter Seven. The 1990s: Sifting the Fragments

Abstract
In the early 1990s, Dream criticism was furthered by the appearance of two books by established critics which assembled and elaborated material they had published earlier – René Girard’s A Theater of Envy, a study of Shakespeare which includes substantial discussions of the Dream, and James L. Calderwood’s book devoted to the Dream in the Twayne’s New Critical Introductions to Shakespeare series. We shall consider each of these in turn. We shall then discuss two interpretations, the first by Terence Hawkes and the second by Patricia Parker, which to some extent pursue and innovatively extend the critical probings of the 1980s, and move on to the analysis of Margo Hendricks, which takes up the hitherto hardly explored topic of the Dream’s relationship to race and empire. We shall follow this by exploring the renewed attention to the relationship between the Dream and Ovid in Jonathan Bate’s Shakespeare and Ovid (1993) and we shall conclude the chapter by considering Helen Hackett’s book on the Dream, published in the Writers and Their Work series.
Nicolas Tredell

Chapter Eight. The 2000s: Refiguring the Maze

Abstract
In the early twenty-first century, the field of Dream criticism – and of Shakespeare criticism more generally – was interestingly varied. The kinds of critical-scholarly approach which had developed in the 1950s and remained dominant through the 1960s still persisted in some form, but within a configuration which had been strongly reshaped by the challenges that had emerged in the later twentieth century and which this Guide has traced in relation to the Dream. Those challenges themselves, however, no longer seemed quite so innovative and radical; they had become well established, their original practitioners were growing older and were, for the most part, more institutionally and personally settled (where they had not retired or passed on); and students encountered ideas and approaches which had once seemed subversive as a corpus of concepts and procedures which they were required to assimilate rather than rebel against. If this meant that some of the impetus which had initially fuelled the critical movements of the 1980s had diminished, it did, in a sense, make it possible to engage with Shakespeare’s texts in a way less inflected by polemical considerations. But of course polemic continued, if in a quieter vein, and the first essay we shall consider in this chapter is an example of quiet polemic combined with erudite interpretation, by the most subtle of those critics who had emerged as defenders of what might loosely be termed a ‘traditional’ approach to Shakespeare: A. D. Nuttall.
Nicolas Tredell

Chapter Nine. 1935–99: Dream on Screen

Abstract
There can be no easy correspondence between the criticism of the Dream we have examined in the previous chapters of this Guide and the criticism of Dream films. For much of the twentieth century most literary critics disdained film, while critics could only tackle the new medium at full stretch when they had broken free of assumptions derived from literary criticism (at least of the more traditional kinds). There has nonetheless been a steadily growing body of criticism and related secondary material to accompany the now quite considerable corpus of Dream films. Kenneth S. Rothwell’s Shakespeare on Screen (1999) lists eleven cinema and TV adaptations of the Dream between 1909 and 1996,1 and in the very year in which Rothwell’s book was first published, a further, highly significant version appeared. This chapter focuses on the critical response to the five adaptations which are, in varying degrees, closest to the original text: the 1935 version directed by Max Reinhardt (1873–1943) and William Dieterle (1893–1972); the 1969 version directed by Sir Peter Hall (born 1930); the 1981 BBC TV version directed by Elijah Moshinsky (born 1946); the 1996 version directed by Adrian Noble (born 1950); and the 1999 version directed by Michael Hoffman (born 1957).
Nicolas Tredell

Conclusion: Dream On

Abstract
We have come a long way since Samuel Pepys’s dismissal of the Dream in 1662 as ‘insipid and ridiculous’. But Pepys was not completely immune to the play’s charm: he concluded his diary comment on the production he had attended by remarking: ‘I saw, I confess, some good dancing and some handsome women, which was all my pleasure’.1 In these respects, he did respond to two aspects of the play which, as this Guide has shown, have concerned later critics: its terpsichorean (dance-like) qualities and its engagement with matters of gender and sexuality (the latter of considerable interest to Pepys, as his diaries demonstrate). On some level, the play had touched him.
Nicolas Tredell
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