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A Midsummer Night's Dream: The Art of Plotting Mastered

From The Development of Shakespeare as a Dramatist by George Pierce Baker. New York: Macmillan.

In A Midsummer Night's Dream .... what is instantly noteworthy on the technical side is the amount of incident, and that the incident is so related that one unhesitatingly denominates it plot. But what does "plot" mean? Has not all the earlier analysis proved that it is simply design, "the means by which the artist, out of a chaos of characters, actions, passions, evolves order"? [W. H. Fleming, Shakespeare's Plots, p. 15] He may have only the purpose to tell within the limited space of five acts a simple story, but even that story must have a beginning and an end, related incident, sequence, and climax in a word, an orderly telling. Or it may be that the dramatist, before he writes, threads his way amid an almost infinite number of incidents, guided in his selecting by some central purpose.

That central purpose may be to illustrate a many-sided character by selecting, not simply scenes which show this or that aspect of it, but the scenes which, first, represent it dramatically, and, secondly, represent it in the shortest space of time. Or the guide of a dramatist in selection and arrangement may be a central idea which each of his scenes or groups of scenes is to enforce. Or it may be that the special conditions under which the play is to be given a Christmas merrymaking, a wedding, festivities to welcome some foreign prince determine the selection and the adjustment of the material.

It is the first purpose, storytelling, which underlies such a play as Titus Andronicus; the second purpose, characterization, marks Richard III and Henry V; it is the third, a central idea, which unifies Hamlet; and the fourth method, selection determined by special conditions of presentation, is exemplified in A Midsummer Night's Dream.

In any case there must in good plotting be some central purpose to act as a kind of magnet to draw to itself unerringly and swiftly the filaments of illustrative incident. That is, plot rests primarily on selection of incident, which in turn is determined by the dramatic purpose of the author. Yet when these incidents have been selected, there is as yet only a primary sort of plot what may be denominated fable or story as contrasted with real plot. If this distinction did not hold, we should not call the chronicle histories poorly plotted. The dramatic artist who is capable of real design sees instantly that some of his incidents should fill only brief, transitional scenes; that others should be developed till they have yielded all their capacity of serious or comic results ; and that between, treated with just the amount of detail the dramatist's artistic purpose in the whole play requires, should lie the bulk of the incident. It is when the incidents selected for some definite purpose, whether mere story-telling, study of character, or tragic import, have been thus proportioned and moulded till they tell a unified story with perfect clearness and with just the emphasis on each part which the artistic purpose of the author requires that we have in the strict sense of the word plot.

Clearly, then, and this is the first point I wish to stress, plot is neither simply a matter of selection nor of sequential incident. It is as well a matter of proportion and emphasis. All these characteristics can exist in perfection only when a dramatic author knows just what he wishes to do, has all the resources of the technique of his time at his disposal, and consequently, as I have already tried to show, understands perfectly the relation of the public of that time to storytelling on the stage. Plot is, then, fable or story so proportioned and emphasized as to produce in the number of acts chosen the greatest possible amount of emotional effect. In the three plays under consideration all the named requisites of good plotting are fulfilled.

The date of A Midsummer Night's Dream is puzzling. Though we first find it mentioned in 1598 and it was not entered for publication till 1600, most critics agree that it belongs circa 1594-1595. It has often been pointed out that its nature suggests a play written for festivities attending some marriage, but it has not as yet been possible finally to determine whose marriage. If we may strictly interpret the lines of Titania in Scene 1 of Act II as to the season of floods and other disasters, we should place the play in 1593-1594, but unfortunately just such topical allusions we know must not always be taken literally, and, when they may, often belong to some revival rather than to the original production.

Any one who has experience in writing plays for special occasions knows the signs of that kind of composition. In some way its author must connect such work directly, or by suggestion, with the time and place for which it has been written. Yet if the play is to hold together, it must contain some story, and that story must unroll itself sequentially and clearly. Therefore, the writer gives it what nowadays we choose to call its local color, particularly at the beginning and at the end. That is, in the mid space he develops a story which he started in conditions giving the mask or play special fitness, and which he concludes in some way connected with the occasion. He strives also, now and again in the course of telling the story, to connect it with the special circumstances which have called forth the play, but if his fable does not permit this or his skill is not equal to the task, his audience will probably not note the omission if he has made, at the opening and at the close, an effective connection between his play and the special occasion.

Notice how completely this description fits the method used in A Midsummer Night's Dream. To Theseus and Hippolyta comes Egeus complaining that his daughter Hermia prefers Lysander to the man of his choice, Demetrius, and asking aid in forcing her to marry Demetrius. One wonders, on finding Shakespeare beginning a play, the purpose of which is chiefly amusement, as seriously as a tragedy, whether this play must not in date stand near The Comedy of Errors with its similar contrasts, and whether the Elizabethans may not have derived more satisfaction than we do from emotional contrasts so sharp as to be melodramatic. Theseus, bidding Hermia obey her father or else submit to the law of Athens for such disobedience, death or a vow to live forever single, goes out with all except Lysander and Hermia.

Neither Theseus nor Hippolyta returns till the end of the fourth act, just as the story of the lovers reaches its solution. Entering at this point, they make a transition to the fifth act, which, as a reader will probably remember, deals no longer with the story of the lovers, but with the performance of Pyramus and Thisbe by Bottom and his friends, and, finally, with the blessing invoked on the marriage by the fairies. The relation of Theseus and Hippolyta to the other figures of the play, the closing of the story of the lovers in Act IV instead of Act V, and the blessing invoked by the fairies in the last scene of all, should be enough to convince any one that the play was written for some special occasion. Here are all the earmarks of such plays.

Each group of the plot the lovers, the rustics, the fairies has its definite purpose in the work which the special conditions provided: the lovers make the main thread of story; Bottom and the rustics afford the low comedy which evokes steady laughter instead of the mere interest or the occasional laughter produced by the story of the lovers; and the fairies make the complicating element for each of the other two groups, bind them together, and, above all, give the graceful and fitting close which the dramatist for a special occasion must always find.

Yet here are original strands of material as diverse as those which Shakespeare seemed to find it, in the chronicle plays, so difficult to weave into a perfect plot. Let us, therefore, watch for a moment Shakespeare's interweaving of the three groups and his exposition of the resulting plot. Any one must see, I think, that the interweaving is deft, concise, and always managed with a clear understanding of the relation of the public to any play given at such a festivity as a wedding. The order given Philostrate in the first few lines prepares for connection, whenever in the play it seems best to Shakespeare, of the country actors with the group surrounding Hippolyta and Theseus. This first scene sets us well ahead, too, in the story of the four lovers. We hear the agreement of Hermia and Lysander to meet and flee from Athens, as well as Helena's decision to warn Demetrius of the flight. As we have learned, also, that Helena is in love with Demetrius, who loves Hermia, the love chase is well started.

Now that we are eager to know what complications will ensue in this, we are introduced to the amusing country players planning for a performance before the Duke, Theseus. The next scene, today called the first of the second act, shows us the quarrel between Oberon and Titania resulting in his order to Puck to place the magic juice upon her eyes as she sleeps. This is, of course, the means for amusing complication later, her sudden passion for Bottom. Yet even as Oberon gives his orders, Demetrius, pursued by Helena, enters in search of Hermia. Oberon, overhearing Helena's vain importunings of Demetrius, orders Puck, when the lovers have left the stage, to follow and anoint the eyes of the sleeping Demetrius at such a time that on waking he shall see Helena and fall madly in love with her. That is, by the end of the third scene of the play, interest has been aroused in the three groups of figures; the lovers and the fairies have been connected through Oberon; and a cause for complications in all three groups has been set working. Naturally we are eager to press on.



Note, as we proceed, Shakespeare's skill in the use of surprise that causes laughter. The very next scene has an element of surprise that must have greatly amused its audience, for after Oberon has anointed the eyes of Titania as she sleeps, there comes a wholly unexpected complication in the fact that the other two lovers, Lysander and Hermia, wander in and lie down to sleep. Conceive the delight of the auditors as it dawns on them when Puck enters, that by mistake he will anoint the eyes of Lysander, already devoted to Hermia, instead of the eyes of Demetrius. Conceive, too, their keen anticipation of some such complication as that which follows immediately, when Lysander wakens to see Helena hastening by and falls instantly in love with her. Nor, as any one must see who has visualized the action, was amusement lessened by the fact that by the end of the fourth scene the play shows a complete reversal of the original condition of two of the lovers. It is now Hermia, lovelorn and bereft, who follows Lysander, who in turn follows Helena, just as Helena had at the outset followed Demetrius who followed Hermia. Surely the first laughable working out of the complication of the magic juice leaves us eager for others which we suspect must ensue before peace can come to the four lovers. The next scene, through mischievous Puck, gives us the crowning of Bottom with an ass's head, and the sudden passion of Titania, when she wakes, for Bottom thus equipped. The scene following this one is the height of the complications in the story of the lovers, for Oberon, discovering the mistake of Puck, tries to set it right by having Puck anoint the eyes of Demetrius and bring Helena before him as he wakes.

Conceive, again, the delight of the audience as it hears Oberon planning for this. They know, what neither Oberon nor Puck knows, of Lysander's sudden change to infatuation for Helena, and see that if she is brought before Demetrius as he wakes, there will only be confusion worse confounded. Then there will be two lovers for Helena and none for Hermia, where originally there had been none for her and two for Hermia. All this planning of Oberon must have been played to a ripple of laughter that became a roar when expectation was fulfilled by the waking Demetrius. Swiftly follows the quarrelling of the lovers, whose original relations are now completely reversed, and the tricking of the men by Puck as he leads them on by false calls and cries. At last, wearied out, the men lie down to sleep near together, though unwitting because of the fog. To them enter singly the two women, also wearied and lost in the fog. They in turn lie down to sleep. When Puck has squeezed the juice on Lysander's eyes the scene closes, and unless a new complication, a new surprise develops, the end of the troubles of the lovers is in sight, since Demetrius now cares for Helena, and Lysander, when he wakes, will once more love Hermia.

Shakespeare saw that to make space for the special application of his material in the fifth act, he must now swiftly bring the story part to a close. The strong feeling of Theseus in the first act that the laws of Athens must hold, cannot withstand the discovery that Demetrius now cares for Helena, and above all, his desire not to miss the hunt, so the fourth act is a swift presentation of the awakening of Titania from her illusion and the readjustment of the lovers, who wake at the right moment to find Theseus, Hippolyta, and Egeus beside them. Helena takes Demetrius, Hermia Lysander, and all is ready for the brief scene in which the restored Bottom arranges with his comrades for the performance which is to take place in the fifth act. The contents of that last act I have already noted.

From this rapid summary it must be clear, I think, how much plotting there is in all this arrangement and adjustment of the three groups who make the incidents of the play, the lovers, the rustics, and the fairies, and even in the relating of the fourth group, Theseus and Hippolyta, to the other three. The skilful use of surprise also has been specially noteworthy. If we recall Shakespeare's inability in The Two Gentlemen of Verona to bring to a climax the suspense he created, we shall see how greatly he has gained by the time of writing A Midsummer Night's Dream. But successful dramatic surprise always implies an understanding of the audience for which it was planned. Clearly, then, Shakespeare in this play knows his audience better. Here is, too, just the masterly sense of dramatic values in originally separate groups of figures which was absent in the handling of the historical plays. But here imagination works unrestricted by any sense of fact, and characterization is, because of the nature of the occasion, not of first importance, as in the chronicle plays, but subordinate to incident, to story.

Yet it is in the subordinated characterization that the deftness of Shakespeare's emphasis becomes apparent. Surely I need say nothing in praise of Bottom and his fellow-actors. Why they are so much better than our friends of Love's Labour's Lost, Costard, Jaquenetta, Don Armado, and Holofernes, is evident: they are real, and not caricatures as are Don Armado and Holofernes; they are amusing not only for what they say, but for what they do. Moreover, both what they say and what they do in every case adds to the clearness of their characterization. Of course, one does not expect the fairies to have much characterization. If Oberon is mildly jealous, Titania gently obstinate, and Puck always tricksy, that is enough for the story, and we should demand nothing more. But why is it that the middle group of the four lovers is so slightly characterized? Certainly, it is perfectly fair to say that they exist merely for the situations.

Nor can one take refuge in the theory that Shakespeare was here not able to characterize them adequately; that is absurd in the face of characterization of far more difficult figures, in The Comedy of Errors and in the chronicle plays written by 1595. Besides, when Helena follows Demetrius in those early scenes, it is essentially only Venus and Adonis over again, and we know how comprehendingly Shakespeare could handle that situation by 1593. Why is this woman who cares for Demetrius so intensely that she scorns common report and pursues him from the city, little more than a puppet? I believe that the slightness of the characterization in this group, the emphasis on situation and on mannered dialogue rather than on the play of emotion which made these situations pos- sible, arose from Shakespeare's perfect understanding of the task set him by his special occasion.

It was his business to provide for this wedding, or other festival, an amusing story ranging from light comedy of intrigue and situation to farce, and to give it all some special fitness for the occasion. To treat that group of lovers as the emotions they were experiencing would permit, to develop their characters as any adequate portrayal of their emotions would mean, would be to move his audience in sympathy with those characters, to make the audience serious when it wished to smile, to excite it when the spirit of the hour demanded laughter. Moreover, if these lovers had been painted with, we will not say the intensity of imagination that went into Venus and Adonis, but even with the adequacy that marks the figure of Adriana, the wife, in The Comedy of Errors, these people would have held us not by the situation, but by their own humanness, their reality. But was it wise to subject a group of realistically drawn figures to so improbable an experience as the magic juice? Has not dramatic practice shown that when mortals and fairies meet, it is best, if the proper illusion is to be produced, that the mortals shall be types, creatures of situation, rather than convincing studies of character?

Is there not evident, then, a nice sense of values in these facts: of the rustics, the very real figures, only Bottom meets the fairies ; and even he only when bewitched, and that to the group of lovers, standing between the very real group and the unreal, the fairies, belongs only the reality of the situations in which they appear? That is, the lovers make a bridge from the real to the unreal. Note, too, the care of the dramatist to make his fairies as real as possible, so that their intercourse with human beings may not seem too improbable. It is not simply that Oberon and Titania, in their jealousy and pique, show the failings of mortals, but that the references of Titania to conditions of flood and storm (Act II, Sc. 1), which the audience could remember, helped to mesmerize them into accepting the improbable as probable.

In Love's Labour's Lost and The Two Gentlemen of Verona Shakespeare stood, as it were, amidst his material, accumbered by it, sure neither of its dramatic values nor of the methods by which to give his material full dramatic effect. In A Midsummer Night's Dream one can see that Shakespeare has gained the power of looking at his material from outside; of selecting and arranging from it, not merely according to some controlling idea of his own, but in the light of his preceding experiences with audiences. He emerges triumphantly from the problems raised by the limitations of the special conditions under which the play was to be given and by the ordinary attitude of his audience toward his improbable plot.

Once again, too, we have in this play proof that while he is as much of a poet as ever, his poetry serves, no longer dominates, his dramatic purpose. What is particularly noteworthy is that in this play he is no longer adapting, as in The Comedy of Errors, Titus Andronicus, and even The Two Gentlemen of Verona, but, as we suspect is the case in Love's Labour's Lost, is creating the fable which makes the core of his plot. But the difference in complication of narrative and in technical mastery between that last play and A Midsummer Night's Dream! If Shakespeare by 1595 could provide as ingenious and well-wrought plots as this, why his weakness in extracting equally good plots from the material of the chronicles, unless he felt that the purpose of the historical play was different? But thus far in the best accomplishment of Shakespeare outside of the chronicle play it is situation rather than characterization which has been of prime importance. Let us see how his growing technique stood the greater test put upon it when his plan called for characterization of subtler or more unusual figures.


How to cite this article:
Baker, George Pierce. The Development of Shakespeare as a Dramatist. New York: Macmillan, 1920. Shakespeare Online. 21 Jan. 2011. (date when you accessed the information) < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/plays/midsummer/midplotting.html >.
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An early type of stage. From Baker's Development of Shakespeare as a Dramatist.