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The Fundamental Idea of A Midsummer Night's Dream

From Essays on Shakespeare by Karl Elze. New York: Macmillan.

We have said that in A Midsummer Night's Dream the love affairs of the aristocracy are represented as in a mirror. This will be understood in its full significance when we take the anti-masque into consideration. While the aristocracy make love partly a frivolous amusement in idleness, partly a sensual caprice, the lower classes on the contrary regard it from its tragic side. The 'hempen homespuns' know of no other theme for their masque than the melancholy story of 'Pyramus and Thisbe'; with them love is bitter earnest; they know its pathos only, although or perhaps because, they do not understand it.

How deeply this tragic conception of love is rooted in the minds of the people is proved by innumerable popular songs and ballads of all nations. We here confront the question as to the fundamental idea of the play, but cannot enter on it, as our task has nothing to do with what Shakespeare — like every true poet — has expressed unconsciously in his poetry; we only speak of what he has consciously put into it. Only this much may be said, that we nearly agree with A. Peters, who has demonstrated the 'transition both from the actually tragic infidelity in the principal play, and from the tragic fidelity in the counter-play into the comic' to be the fundamental idea of A Midsummer Night's Dream.' [Neue Jahrbucher fur Philologie und Pndagogik, Bd. 94]

That the contrast between the views of love and life in the aristocracy and in the working classes was intentional, cannot be mistaken; the poet refers the one party to the other, and though he is no lecturer on morals, he yet makes us perceive that each party may learn from the other. Both their views are wrong in their one-sidedness, their mutual penetration alone results in what is right. The tragic conception of love — standing as it does in contrast to the education and social position of its representatives — in their hard hands and thick skulls produces an involuntary comic effect, and serves for the amusement of the aristocracy.

But the mechanics are likewise influenced by the lighter atmosphere of life and love in the Duke's palace, and they go home contented. All at last resolves itself into a deeply poetical and delightful play, satisfying all hearts.

How to cite this article:
Elze, Karl. Essays on Shakespeare. New York: Macmillan and Co. 1874. Shakespeare Online. 10 Jan. 2011. (date when you accessed the information) < >.

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