THE MERITS OF SHAKESPEARE'S A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM
|The following article was originally published in Blackwoods Edinburgh Magazine. Vol. XL. July, 1836.
A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM! Had Shakespeare pondered for a lifetime to discover the most appropriate title for this enchanting play, he could have found none which so accurately and expressively embodies its poetical essence. The Winter's Tale is a happy title for the strange, gossip-like, and slenderly connected drama which paints the insane and meaningless jealousy of Leontes, the patient sufferings of Hermione, the loss and recognition of Perdita--her growth from infancy to womanhood in the course of the piece. It is such a "sad tale," fit for winter, as might be supposed to be told "by the dead and drowsy fire," to the accompaniment of a November wind without, and the deep bass of the neighbouring sea; a tale of changes and chances, in which stormy passions and wild incidents rage through the first three acts; quiet affections, and pastoral stillness reign over the fourth, when Time, in his swift passage, has slid o'er sixteen years; and the pathetic and soothing close of which, bearing upon it the impress of still wonder, "sends the hearers weeping to their beds," but with no unpleasing tears. But still more poetically and truly is the spirit of Midsummer Night's Dream expressed in its title. This is truly the shadow of a dream; such a dream as might be supposed to pass before the eye of a poet, in the glimmering twilight of a summer evening, when he abandoned himself passively to the wonder working influences of nature, when the most familiar objects of nature are seen changing their shapes to gigantic and mysterious forms, and in the dim perspective fairy beings sailing, "with the slow motion of a summer cloud," through an atmosphere steeped in moonlight and dew. Calderon's Life is a Dream is the Tragedy of Dreams; a work of great imagination and power, but it is characterized by those depths of wayward gloom and painful gleams of wizard splendour, those uneasy bewildering transitions, that constant feeling of insecurity and anxiety, and restraint, which accompany the dreams of suffering and pain. We follow the changing fortunes of Sigismund from the desert to the dungeon--as under the influence of a spell which we would fain shake off, but cannot. All is presented to us in sad or terrible colours. "What is life," asks the sceptical and unfortunate prince, and the answer is given in these profoundly pathetic and affecting lines:
- "What is life? 'Tis but a madness.
- What is life? A wild illusion,
- Fleeting shadow, fond delusion;
- Short-lived joy that ends in sadness,
- Whose most steadfast substance seems
- But the dream of other dreams."
Calderon's is like the dream of disease; in Shakespeare--"after life's fitful fever we sleep well," and enjoy the sweet and soothing dreams of youth and health. Here we meet but with the comedy of life, at most its griefs and anxieties so softened and shaded away by the lightness of the touch with which they are painted, the airy accompaniments by which they are surrounded, and the gentle irony which plays through and penetrates the whole, that they cease to affect us with any feeling of suffering. The whole passes before us like a vision in which a thousand feelings, some pleasant, some painful, have succeeded each other with such intricate variety of combination, that as a mixture of all colours produces white, so these emotions in their restless rotation produce only a gentle and pleasurable sensation, and we rise from them as awaking to the freshness of morning, with the confused but pleasing remembrances of sleep.
- "If we shadows have offended,
- Think but this and all is mended,
- That you have but slumbered here
- While these visions did appear;
- And this week and idle theme
- No more yielding than a dream.
- Gentles, do us reprehend;
- If you pardon we will mend."
So says Puck in the Epilogue, and in these lines lies the secret by which the strange elements of this drama have been harmonized into a whole, of which the charm is felt to some extent by all, though in its full potency only by the imaginative. It is a poetic dream, and to be judged of by the laws of dreams. The strong painting of individual character we are not to expect in it; for it professes not to connect itself, save by the slenderest threads, with the world of reality; the beings who figure in it are shadows and symbols rather than real existences; and for the wildest intermixture of the actual with the supernatural; of the mythology of the classic times with the creations of romance--of the loves, griefs, mistakes, and jealousies of high born nobles and dames with the rudest mummeries of Athenian artisans, "hard handed men who never laboured in their minds till now;" for all this we must be prepared. A Warburton may object to this introduction of the Fairy mythology of Modern Europe among the fabulous events and superstitions of Ancient Greece; but Shakespeare sees no inconsistency or hostility between them, forming, as they do, mere decorations in a wondrous arabesque, which acknowledges not the laws of this waking and working world. He sees not why on this neutral territory or limbo of Dream, Diana may not, jointly with Titania, head the morrice-dancers of Elves upon the yellow moonlit sands; why Oberon may not hold divided empire in these Athenian woods with antique Pan; and piping Satyrs, with cleft heel, live in kindly fellowship with Robin Goodfellow, Monsieur Mustard-seed, and Cavalero Cobweb. As little can he perceive that the broadest farce, the most "palpable gross play" of rude mechanics, may not be made to blend with and cross the tangled web of love intrigue among the more tragic personage of the play, or that the fairy train may not mingle in and embroil the affairs of both. Nay, he scruples not to connect the mythology of the classic times with the most direct allusions to the court of the Maiden Queen, in the well-known passage in which Oberon describes the flower once milk white, now purple, since the bolt of Cupid had lighted on it, which had been harmlessly aimed against the bosom of the Fair Vestal throned by the West. In that region of pure imagination in which this piece hovers, he feels that there is room enough for them all; he throws himself with confidence on the sympathies of congenial imaginations, and not in vain.
But fully to apprehend its charm, the reader must be endowed with a deep sensibility to the magic of nature, particularly to the sweet and fragrant twilight of a summer evening, when
- "All around to rest drawsn nigh,
- Where the grain its ears is stooping,
- The o'erwearied roses drooping
- In the hush of night their eye.
- And the restless cypress-trees
- Slumber moveless in the breeze."
It is when the moonlight sleeps upon the bank, or glitters on the dew-sprinkled leaves and flowers--when the recollections of childhood coming thronging back into our memories--and all those fancies awake, which in this dim twilight find their cradle and home--when sounds as if of fairy harps and still small voices make themselves heard, which, in the noise and bustle of the garish day, have been unheard or unheeded--when all objects around, magnified by the haze of the balmy eve, begin to flit and waver, and change into fantastic and mysterious forms--when a gentle weariness steals over our senses, and we find ourselves as it were between sleeping and waking, with dreams beginning already to wave before the half shut eye;--then it is alone that we can enter into the full spirit of this piece--then it is that we purpose in earnest with Theseus and Hippolyto to dream away the time, for a fortnight, "in nightly revels and new jollity"--then only do we fairly take a side in the quarrels of Oberon and Titania--we dance our ringlets with their fairy elves upon the beached margent of the sea--we follow the lovers in their mazy goblin-guided rambles through the wood where Hermia and Helena so oft "upon faint primrose beds were wont to lie"--we smile at the simple duty of the honest "rude mechanicals who work for bread upon Athenian stalls," and here with their hard hands, have so boldly made their first assay piece in the new and delicate craft of poetry--we even sympathize with the fate of the ill-starred but eloquent Pyramus, and his truly tragic and dignified companion Thisbe; nay, if stage-manager Quince should apply to us, would be ready to take a part in the piece ourselves, at the shortest notice, though it were nothing more important than that of Wall, or the Man in the Moon!
Every thing in this beautiful aerial drama indicates one of the early offspring of the poet's fancy. It was, in fact, so far as can be ascertained, one of his juvenile productions, being supposed to have been produced so early as 1594; and immediately after, the comparatively immature productions of the Two Gentlemen of Verona (1591), The Comedy of Errors (1592), and Love's Labour Lost (also in 1594).) In the two former, indeed, little of Shakespeare's peculiar turn of mind is at all visible. The Two Gentlemen of Verona, borrowed in all its main outlines from Montemayor's Diana, a fashionable pastoral romance of the day, with which Shakespeare had apparently become acquainted through the early English translation of Thomas Wilson, is, with the exception of the single comic character of Launce, a mere sketch, in which, no doubt, the germ of future poetical conceptions may be faintly traced, but from which assuredly no one, with any confidence, could have predicted the future high vocation of its author. Though containing some sweet and graceful poetry, and more distinguished than most of his later works by attention to the strict rules of versification (such as Valentine's description of his friend, and his reflections on a solitary life), it is undistinguished by much depth of passion or power of imagination, and, except in the comic outline to which we have alluded, by any detailed or discriminating portraiture of character. In the whole play, in truth, we perceive the hesitating and still imperfect artist, who has laid his hand somewhat bewildered upon the strings of the human heart, is afraid to press them with energy, and recoils with apprehension even from the sounds himself has made. No great advance is perceptible in the Comedy of Errors. By what means Shakespeare became acquainted with the Menaechmi of Plautus, from which, with slender variations, the Comedy of Errors is undoubtedly taken, is still a question which, as Sir Thomas Brown says of the "Song the Siren's Sung, might admit of a wide solution," since the only English translation which is known to have existed of the play, bearing on the titlepage the initials W.W., seems to have appeared in 1595, three years subsequent to the time at which Malone supposes the comedy of Errors to have been first represented. But, from whatever quarter the plot came to him, it cannot be said to have improved in his hands. The improbabilities of the plot are increased beyond endurance, and certainly with no corresponding increase of comic effect, by the multiplication of resemblances, which arises from furnishing the twin-brothers, and thus over complicating a plot already sufficiently complex and difficult to follow. In fact, the taste of Shakespeare, in this rudimental period of his dramatic apprenticeship, seems decidedly to have been a false one. He appears to have aimed at producing effect, not by that simplicity of means which is the result of consummate knowledge and command of our resources, and which he afterwards attained in such rare perfection, but by the multiplication of incidents, the accumulation of comic embarrassments, and a taste closely analogous to the principles of the Spanish school of his great contemporary, Lope de Vega. A tinge of this remaining fondness for intricacy of plot, and for the dramatic suspense which is so easily excited and so cheaply maintained by that mazy intermixture or cross-fire of affections which is so frequent on the Spanish stage, is still perhaps sufficiently perceptible even in the Midsummer Night's Dream; but no one can fail to see that here an immense advance has been made; that a gulf lies between it and its predecessors, which only the agency of genius, working, as it always does, secretly and invisibly, could bridge over; that here for the first time the true poet comes before us in no questionable shape; and that while his youthful mind still delights to dwell rather in regions of pure fancy than to grapple with and to elevate into poetry the conditions of this our actual existence, it no longer submits to be the imitator of others, but gives room and verge for its creative powers in an airy series of pictures hanging in a half-ideal atmosphere, yet warm with all the purple lights of love, and bright with the hues of innocence and the romance of youth.
It must be admitted, that, as a specimen of this drama of intrigue, where the whole plot is first artificially complicated, and then naturally and gracefully unwound, nothing, even in the best dramas of Calderon, surpasses that portion of the plot of our own Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream, which depicts the labyrinthine loves of Lysander, Demetrius, Hermia, and Helena. It has all the apparent confusion, yet real and artful arrangement of a dance, in which the parties are constantly changing partners, but always according to certain laws, by means of which we are assured that each will in the end be restored to the point from which they set out. They only "dance the hayes" for a time through the mazes of love, where the ballroom is a moonlight forest, and Puck acts as master of the ceremonies, to fall back again with a grace into the first position. We feel assured, however puzzling the imbroglio at first may seem, that, in the end, as Puck rather unceremoniously expresses it, "The man shall have his mare again, and all shall go well." Let us glance then at the successive figures of the dance.
Two Athenian maidens--Helena, tall and fair--Hermia, little, and a brunette, who have grown together,
- "Like to a double cherry seeming parted,
- But yet a union in partition,
- Two lovely berries moulded on one stem,
- So with two seeming bodies, but one heart,"
have yielded to the power of love. Helena loves Demetrius--Hermia Lysander, and they are beloved in turn. This is the picture which the parties present at the outset--two pairs, two reciprocal attachments. But Demetrius is fickle; he becomes untrue to the fair Helena; his heart has suddenly become entangled by the duskier charms of Hermia, and his wooing is favoured by her father. Thus the two reciprocal attachments are suddenly converted into two onesided, and one reciprocal. Helena loves Demetrius as before--Demetrius loves Hermia; Hermia loves Lysander, who loves her again, but to whose love the father is opposed. This is the second movement of the ballet. Hermia and Lysander, in order to evade "the sharp Athenian law," resolve to fly the capital. Helena betrays their intended flight to Demetrius, in hopes by this means to win back his favour; he follows them into "the wood a league beyond the town," and thither he in turn is followed by Helena. This wood has been selected by Oberon as the place of punishment of Titania for her refusal to deliver up her Indian boy to be his henchman; he witnesses the coldness and cruelty with which Demetrius, intent only on the pursuit of Hermia, repulses the attachment of Helena; and in pity he resolves to call in the aid of "Love in idleness" to restore him to his former state of feeling.
- "That herb, whose juice on sleeping eyelids laid,
- Will make or man or woman madly dost
- Upon the next live creature that it sees."
He directs Puck to anoint the eyes of the disdainful Demetrius with this balsam, that so, on awakening, Helena, who lies wearied and travel-worn by his side in the haunted forest, may be the first object that presents itself to his eyes. Puck stumbling first upon Lysander and Hermia, and thinking he has found the man, "by the Athenian garments he hath on," drops the charm upon his eyes instead of those of Demetrius. Unfortunately the first glances of Lysander on awakening fall on Helena, who, in the pursuit of Demetrius, has wandered to the spot where Lysander and Hermia had taken shelter; and now the two original reciprocal attachments are suddenly converted in the third stage into four unrequited ones; Helena loves Demetrius, Demetrius Hermia--Hermia Lysander, Lysander Helena. Oberon chides Puck for his carelessness, and by an application of the charm to the eyes of Demetrius, for whom it was first intended, restores him to his first attachment to Helena. Thus then we have again two unrequited and one reciprocal attachment, yet with a difference from the second figure of this mazy dance; for now Hermia loves Lysander, Lysander Helena, and Helena Demetrius, by whom she is again beloved. As in a former figure of the dance, both the gentlemen were by the side of Hermia, while Helena stood alone; so now both stand by the side of Helena, and Hermia is forsaken. The application of a counter charm, through the medium of Puck, to the eyes of the enchanted Lysander, an herb
- "That takes from thence all error with his might,
- And makes his eyeballs roll with wonted sight,"
Restores every thing with the most graceful and easy dénouement to the former state--the dance of life, not of death, is completed; and, again, as at the outset--Helena loves Demetrius, Herma Lysander, and each is beloved in turn.
The movements of this eccentric love-dance take place round a more stationary group of buffo performers of the most singular description. Five common Athenian artisans, who have determined to distinguish themselves by an exhibition of private theatricals in honour of the wedding-day of Theseus with the Amazon queen, have chosen for their place of rehearsal the shades of the same wood, through the mazes of which these enamoured couples are thus pursuing each other at cross-purposes, and where the fairy monarch and his queen have so lately met and parted in anger. The elves now begin to take a part in the performance. Puck damns the piece, and disperses the players, by suddenly investing the chief actor with an ass's head. The first glances of Titania, as she awakes under the influence of the charm of Oberon's purple flower, fall upon the disguised Bottom, and he becomes the object of an insane adoration. With what consummate grace is the picture here disposed! In the centre sits Titania, sticking musk roses in the sleek smooth head and kissing the large ears of Bottom; Cobweb, Peas-blossom, Moth, Mustard-seed, nodding to him and doing him courtesies; and round the central fairy masque, flitting in alternate succession, the comic quadrille of Quince, Snug, Snout, and Starvelling seeking their lost companion through the wood; or the grave quadrille of the enamoured lovers, now seeking, now shunning each other, in most artificial, most admired disorder. When these scattered and tangled threads of intrigue are all drawn to a point on the festival of Theseus' nuptials, the piece concludes with a triple marriage and with the broadest and boldest scenes of buffoonery--scenes in which the poet seems to have parodied, by anticipation, some of the most touching and tragic situations in his own Romeo and Juliet, a play which appeared shortly afterwards, and the germ of which probably had already begun to be developed in his mind. It is worthy of observation, that Shakespeare does not allow the impression of broad parody to be the last feeling which he leaves upon the mind. He returns again for a moment into the key of the supernatural. When the iron tongue of midnight has told twelve, and sleep has descended equally upon the cottage of the artisan and the palace of the Duke, Oberon with his fairy train comes once more stealing in, now reconciled to Titania, to bless the bride-bed of the lovers--
- "That the issue, there create,
- Ever may be fortunate,
- So shall all the couples three
- Ever true and loving be:
- And the blots of Nature's hand
- Shall not in their issue stand;
- Never mole, bare-lip, nor scar,
- Nor mark prodigious, such as are
- Despised in nativity,
- Shall upon their children be.--
- With this field-dew consecrate,
- Every fairy take his gate;
- And each several chamber bless,
- Through this palace with sweet peace:
- E'er shall it in safety rest,
- And the owner of it blest.
- Trip away;
- Make no stay;
- Meet me all by break of day."
Thus the whole fades and flies away like a lovely dream with the approach of morning--a dream so airy, so ethereal in its more elevated pageants--so cheerful, so sunny in its humorous features, that, on waking from it, we almost "cry to sleep again."