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An Introduction to A Midsummer Night's Dream

No play was ever named more appropriately than this; it is a "Dream," - a dream composed of elves, mistakes, wild fantasies, and the grotesque. Its time is night. When the day dawns the shadows flee away, the dramatis personae awake, and all comes right again. Shakespeare may have dreamed it, lying on some cowslip bank. And, what is most remarkable in this play, written by a master of character, there are almost no human characters in it that we can take an interest in. We care little for Helena, or Hermia; Lysander, or Demetrius; Theseus, or Hippolyta: our interest is in the loveliness, and gracefulness, and grotesqueness of the dream. Speaking of Shakespeare as a master of character, I should like to quote to you a passage from Coleridge, which applies with equal force to him who, I think, most nearly approached Shakespeare, - I mean Balzac. Coleridge says:
"The characters of Shakespeare's dramatis personae like those in real life, are to be inferred by the reader, - they are not told him. Like characters in real life, they are very commonly misunderstood, and almost always understood by different persons in different ways ; . . . even the character himself sees himself through the medium of his character, and not exactly as he is. . . . You may know whether you have, in fact, discovered the poet's own idea, by all the speeches receiving light from it. . . . You must not suppose a pressure and a passion always acting on, or in, the character. Passion, in Shakespeare, is that by which the individual is distinguished from others, not that which makes a different kind of man of him. Shakespeare followed the main march of human affections. He entered into no analyses of the passions and faiths of men, but assured himself that such and such passions and faiths were grounded on our common nature, and not on the mere incidents of ignorance or disease. This is an important consideration, and constitutes our Shakespeare the morning-star - the guide and pioneer - of true philosophy. ... In his mode of drawing characters there are no pompous descriptions of a man by himself; his character is to be drawn, as in real life, from the whole course of the play, or out of the mouths of friends or enemies."
Perhaps this passage seems inappropriate as an opening to a drama in which there are no carefully delineated characters; but even here, Shakespeare could not create human beings without enduing them with life. We have the good-natured, appreciative Theseus, who makes the best of everything; the proud, fastidious Hippolyta; the tall, fair, spiteful, cowardly, exasperated Helena; the petite, sprightly, dark, confiding, outraged Hermia, - brave, but with a will and temper of her own; Lysander, the true gentleman and lover; Demetrius, who was no gentleman, but at once hot-tempered and a sneak.

Just as in newspaper illustrations, a French artist, with half a dozen random scratches of the pen, makes his sketch instinct with life and meaning, so Shakespeare, in his merest sketches, gives the spirit of a finished and elaborated portrait; and nowhere do we see this more plainly than in the "Midsummer Night's Dream." Observe, in contrast, that the fairies, and the clown-fairy, Puck, have no characters at all. Oberon is possessed by the spirit of jealousy; Titania, by a spirit of tormenting; Puck delights in putting his finger into every pie, for frolic's sake, be it to mar or mend; but we do not feel in the least that Oberon is of a jealous disposition, or that Titania is a fairy Cressida, or that Puck is steeped in malignity. Their jealousy, their caprices, or their mischief, are mere surface qualities.

The Gods of Hellas, as we find them in the Iliad, were of various origins. Besides the Olympian divinities, there were the adopted gods of Asia, - the gods, Saturn, and others, who preceded the Olympians, and who seem a survival of the light from Paradise; there were also deified qualities, as Rumor, Discord, etc.; and there were the gods native to the soil, - dryads, and nereids, the wood-nymphs, water-nymphs, and sea-nymphs, of antiquity. In like manner, everywhere that the Celts settled, - or those Indo-Aryan tribes who were our ancestors, - they made, or they found, the earth peopled with elves, fairies, and nixies. The elves, or gnomes, lived under the earth; the fairies above ground; the nixies in the water. The monks of the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth centuries - chiefly men of peasant birth - carried their belief in these beings into their cells. "They adopted the popular traditions, and turned them into Saints' legends. Indeed, a more extensive knowledge of the Anglo-Saxon fairies," says Mr. Thomas Wright, the antiquary, "may perhaps be gathered from the legends of the Anglo-Saxon Saints than from all other sources. Only remembering that in the transformation, the elves, when mischievously inclined, became devils; and when beneficent, angels."

The familiar name of Old Nick, popularly applied to the great spirit of Evil, is borrowed from the vocabulary of Paganism, - the nickers, or nixies, being water-fairies, who not only dwelt like kelpies in the lakes and rivers, but had their habitation in the sea. There is nothing that commends itself to our fancy in any of the popular stories of little black elves, hatched out of an incubus, who spent their time in alternately persecuting and assisting the human race. The Pucks, follets, and brownies, of domestic life, "generally haunted the houses of country people, whence neither holy water, nor exorcism, could expel them. They were invisible, but made known their presence by throwing about stones and wood, and even the pots and kettles." Our devil derived from them his horns, his hoofs, and tail. They were the devils who held intercourse with witches.

In an old manuscript in Vienna, written before such familiarity with the world of spirits was considered to deserve the extreme pains of heresy, we find penances imposed on those who "had thrown little bows, and small shoes into their cellars and barns, in order that the hobgoblins might come thither to play with them, and might in return, bring them other people's goods." The same class of stories is still popular in Brittany. But as we read of these coarse goblins, lubber-fiends, or changeling elves, our minds reject them either as fairies or as devils. These thoughts become rebuked when we see how Shakespeare has evoked the richest poetry out of what seemed to us unpromising material. Fairies, long since, would have faded from our literature, had not Shakespeare, seizing on the traditions of an ignorant and semi-pagan people, embalmed them, to be the delight of the civilized world.

The only poetical notion which we find in ancient chronicles concerning elves professes to be given on the authority of one of themselves. He said that they were a portion of the angels who fell with Lucifer, but inasmuch as, having been deluded and seduced, they were not so criminal as their fellows, their sentence had been less severe; they were allowed to live on earth, - some of them having their peculiar dwelling-place in the air, others in the waters, some again in trees and fountains, and many in the caverns of the earth. The elfin informant went on to confess that "as Christianity spread over the earth they had much less power than formerly."

Shakespeare has given us five species of these supernatural being's, - the spirit of the air, who is Ariel; the fairies proper, who dance in their rings and enjoy themselves by moonlight; the dreamland fairy (Queen Mab) in "Romeo and Juliet;" the elfin Puck; and perhaps we may add that he has drawn the "lubber-fiend," all corporeality, in Caliban. These differ from one another as star from star. Drayton, Shakespeare's contemporary, wrote a beautiful, and little appreciated poem upon Queen Titania. The ballad of "Robin Good-fellow," to be found in our collections of ballad poetry is attributed to Ben Jonson, but there were earlier ballads on the same subject. Some trace the name of Puck to an old fashioned name for the devil, derived from the same word as our Americanism "spook," which is of Low-Dutch origin.

The "Midsummer Night's Dream" was first printed in 1598. It seems to have been an object of care to Shakespeare, as the earliest printed copies are more carefully corrected than usual. It went early into two editions. Theseus and Hippolyta had their origin in Chaucer's "Knight's Tale."

The scene is supposed to be laid in Athens, in which case Athens must have been a mediaeval principality as to manners and customs. Theseus, having conquered the Queen of the Amazons, is about to wed her when the action opens. He shows himself at once kindly and jovial. The Amazonian lady is matter-of-fact and business-like. I see reason to fear he got the worst share in his matrimonial bargain.

How to cite this article:
Latimer, Elizabeth Wormeley. Familiar Talks on Some of Shakespeare's Comedies. Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1886. Shakespeare Online. 21 Jan. 2011. (date when you accessed the information) < >.

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