It is no uncommon fault, even of distinguished poets, that having created some one striking conception of character, or exhibited some poetical aspect of life with success, they are led to repeat the same idea over and over, with merely some slight difference of external form and ornament. Were it necessary to refer to examples in support of this remark, the literature of our own day would furnish us with instances in abundance. Shakespeare alone, such is the extent of his poetical resources, and his prodigality in their use, can never be said to have repeated himself in any one of his conceptions of character, or of the relations of life. Thus we have but one Hamlet, one Lear, one Brutus, one Othello, one Desdemona, one Imogen, one Cordelia; they come but for a moment, perform their part, and disappear for ever to make way for new forms of character placed amidst other scenes, and illustrating some new truth in our complicated and mysterious nature. This observation is not less applicable to this fairy melodrama. Calderon, not content with once painting the dream of life in lurid colours in his Vida es Sueno, repeats the same them in his Todo es verdad y todo Mentira in a weaker and more cloudy shape. Who can doubt that Shakespeare might with ease have furnished us with many visions as enchanting as this Midsummer Night's Dream? But beautiful as its texture was, Shakespeare felt that in this world we had too much to do with realities to bestow an undue portion of attention upon airy visions. He has left us as a legacy one glimpse into the world of dreams which yet remains without its fellow; but the cloud-land in which the youth dwelt is no home for the matured man,--"He twitches his mantle blue," and with the morrow seeks "fresh fields and pastures new."
Strong or minute development of character would have been altogether inconsistent with the light and gossamer texture of A Midsummer Night's Dream. To have attempted to incorporate the strong play of passion, or the peculiar individuality of character or humour, with a fable so wild, and lying so totally beyond the confines of the visible diurnal sphere, would have been like building an edifice of marble on the unsubstantial basis of an evening cloud. All the more serious characters, therefore, are but sketches. Between Lysander and Demetrius scarcely any distinction is to be traced. In Theseus we see nothing but an imposing outside, a love of hunting, and a taste for puns and quibbles, for which the dramatic representation of the Athenian operatives affords ample scope. Somewhat more of discrimination is shown in the characters of Hermia and Helena; the mildness of the tall beauty, the vivacity and somewhat shrewish temper of the little brunette, qualities of which her rival does not fail to remind her in their encounter in the wood, are brought out with a few touches of a light pencil, but so as quite sufficiently to paint to the mind's eye the difference of their possessors. Though no strong feeling of anxiety or suffering is created by the crosses to which the lovers are subjected; though we follow their footsteps with a secret assurance, that all these misconceptions and mislikings, these instances of fickleness, these words of reproach, these acts of ungentleness, are but the perplexing dream of a night, and to disappear with the tomorrow, there is yet a gentle air of softened earnestness and qualified reality spread over them sufficient to create a mild interest in their fate. All the pensive and desponding thoughts, for instance, which cloud and overshadow young and loving hearts, when they first begin to encounter difficulties, and to awake to the conviction that love, so far from being omnipotent, is in this life checked or overborne by a thousand contingencies and calamities, are summed up with the most pensive and pathetic beauty in those lines of Lysander's, which who that has read them can forget?
- "Ah me! for aught that ever I could read,
- Could ever hear by tale or history,
- The course of true love never did run smooth.
- But either it was different in blood,
- Or else misgraffed in respect of years,
- Or else it stood upon the choice of friends;
- Or, if there were a sympathy in choice,
- War, death, or sickness did lay siege to it,
- Making it momentary as a sound,
- Swift as a shadow, short as any dream;
- Brief as the lightning in the collied night,
- That, in a spleen, unfolds both heaven and earth,
- And ere a man hath power to say--behold!
- The jaws of darkness to devour it up:
- So quick bright things come to confusion!"
"So fares it with the lovely in this world," says Schiller; borrowing the thought, and almost the words of our own Shakespeare, and placing them in the mouth of the bereaved daughter of Wallenstein, when she learns the vanishing of all her dreams of hope; and that the youthful hero, who, on the threshold of life,
- "Had hailed her like an angel newly lighted,
- When first she crossed it with a maiden fear,"
has been trampled to death under the hard hoofs of horses in the skirmish at Neustadt, and now lies a cold and lifeless heap in his laurel covered coffin in the cloister of St. Catherine.
And now to glance at the supernatural beings of the piece, whose tiny passions and jealousies are made to mingle so oddly with the love passages of mortals. Horn's remarks on this subject are, on the whole, so good, that, though the passage is a long one, and in some parts a little fantastic (as in the best he is), we hope it will be found no unpleasant reading.
"The lovers," says he, "have to contend not only with the severe father Ægeus, with the warlike Duke Theseus, and with the charm of love itself, but even the world of spirits mingles in the fray--no ghostly world of spirits, but a gay, fluttering race of beings, clothed with tenderest flesh and bone, which, compassionating the sufferings of love, would fain help the sufferers, but who with all good intentions act, in a manner, half blindly, so that for a time their interference only makes the evil worse. For this, indeed, Oberon the Elfin monarch is himself a great measure answerable, since he ought never to have intrusted the management of these tender love affairs to the joyous and reckless spirit Puck. No better agent could be found, where the task is but to clap an ass's head upon Bottom; but his talent fails him when he is called on to distinguish a loving from an unloving Athenian youth. This may no doubt be said for Oberon, that he is at that moment too much occupied with his own concerns to be able to do more than to send assistance, and every one knows what comes of it, when the servant does the master's business.
"These private concerns of the Elfin King are not, it is true, very important. He has had a quarrel with his wife, the fair Titania, because she will not surrender to him the son of a deceased Indian princess, her friend, to be his henchman. For the boy himself he cares not much, for he calls him 'a little changeling boy,' but he has commanded, and he has been disobeyed: and the very thought that Titania can refuse obedience in any thing, is enough to occasion him annoyance. Through this misunderstanding between the royal pair, blight and distemperature have fallen on wood and plain, on ploughman and ox.
- 'The green corn
- Hath rotted ere his youth attained a beard,
- The fold stands empty in the drowned field,
- The crows are fatted with the murrain flock.'
"The very seasons seem to have altered.
- 'Hoary-headed frosts
- Fall in the fresh lap of the crimson rose,
- And an old Hyem's chin and icy crown,
- An odorous chaplet of sweet summer buds
- Is as in mockery set. The spring, the summer,
- The childing autumn, angry winter change
- Their wonted liveries, and the mazed world,
- By their increase, now knows not which is which,
- And this same progeny of evils comes
- From their debate, from their dissension.'
"To all this Titania could put an end: she has but to surrender her Indian _protegé;_ but that point cannot be so easily yielded; and, in truth, if the boy resembles his mother, of whose wild gambols the Queen presents so picturesque a sketch, it must be admitted it must have gone hard with her to part with so interesting a page. In any view the object of the strife seems not altogether unworthy of the importance attached to him, and the strife itself is so steeped in all the colours of poetry, that we look on as witnesses with delight.
"But is not the punishment to which the poor Elfin Queen is subjected for her denial something too harsh? Is not too bad to be condemned to fall in love with an unlicked cub, who, to make the matter worse, believes himself to be witty? So it may appear, and yet it is not so. Her attachment to him is but an evil dream--the source of infinite delight to us--the strangest, in fact, which is dreamt in all this visionary drama; and to such dreams as a punishment the fairest and the most amiable, so soon as they abandon their sex's best ornament, 'loving obedience,' are exposed. Fortunately they are momentary; and after the feeling of annoyance that one should ever have had such a dream, follows the perception of its comic features, and the ridicule of one's self.
"In order, however, fully to enjoy this Oberon and Titania, this Puck, Mustard-seed, Pease-blossom, Cobweb, and so forth, some things must first be put upon their right footing. It would seem that an overweening fondness for 'the gods of Greece,' which for a time was regarded as an indispensable poetical accompaniment, had somewhat impaired our knowledge and our love of our own modern and domestic mythology. We leave these Grecian deities and demi-gods in all their beauty and attraction, in all their majesty of action and repose--we leave them, we say, in all honour; but we ask whether they have not found fit substitutes among ourselves, and we answer our own question in the affirmative. Learn only to know those Elves and Erles, those Undines and Gnomes--those spirits of fire and air--those nut-brown maidens, who, concealed in thickets, lure on the hunter--those alps and goblins, those pickes and wood-nymphs, which appear in so many of our early heroic or later popular songs, and you will be disposed to moderate your lamentations over the vanished Eldorado of Grecian fable. All of us have indeed heard of these, but most with but half an ear, for this labooriously learned mythology of Greece had anticipated them, and had left too little room for them in the memory and the imagination. And yet it needed only such poems as the Erl-king and the Fisher, to open to us at once a prospect into the treasures of this rich and romantic world.
"It happens, therefore, often enough that we form a false conception as to the true poetic character of many of these beings, airy and fantastic indeed, but marked by a sufficiently clear and palpable individuality. We Germans in particular are apt to be led astray by that craving for 'the elevated,' which we everywhere aim at, and with which we find it so difficult to dispense. And even if we do dispense with this supposed requisite, we either draw the outlines of their characters too close and narrow, or leave them misty and undefined. Thus, for example, our conception of the fairies has long been that of mere ethereal beings leading the moonlight dance, and to whom nothing is permitted beyond the most delicate raillery, and the sweetest and most refined language. We forget that a sphere so narrow as this to which we attempt to confine them, must soon become monotonous and wearisome both to them and to ourselves. Their real sphere must be a wider one; they dance indeed, they tease mortals with their tiny and playful tricks, but their power extends farther; their realm is the whole world of dreams inspired by passion and sense, which acknowledges no other laws but that of fancy, and to which Oberon himself, not less than his subaltern spirits, owes allegiance."
Of the comic characters who are introduced into this wild masque, Bottom is the one who is sketched (for, after all, it is but a sketch) with the most careful outline. He has all the swagger of an accomplished prentice--is obviously a knowing fellow in the shops and streets of Athens--if he has not heard the chimes at midnight, he has seen the sun rise often enough upon his potations--is a favourite with the Hetairæ of the Piræus, as Shallow was with the bona-robas of the Strand; and, presuming upon his admitted superiority as a wit and a man about town, is desirous to engross, if possible, all the available parts of the drama at once. Not content with leading in the part of Pyramus, he would fain have the lion's share also. He insists on doubling it, even with that part, to the great discomfiture of poor Snug, to whom, as a sort of outcast, which no other person was likely to wish for or even accept, the part of the lion had been assigned; and who, with a commendable distrust of his own powers, had at first moved the previous question, whether the lion's part were written, as he was slow of study, and who, having received the satisfactory answer that it might be performed extempore, as it was "nothing but roaring," has at last, "pressed by hunger and desire of friends," been on the point of accepting the part. Bottom evidently throughout considers himself as the star of the company. He sets at nought the authority of Quince, who, in the first instance, had taken upon himself, we know not on what qualifications, the important duties of stage-manager, but who is soon taught, like very other manager, the thousand natural ills that flesh is heir to in the person of him who legislates for others, and the impossibility of adjusting the role of the "premier amoureux" to his own satisfaction, where he has to deal with an amateur performer. This easy self-confidence and perfect self-satisfaction is still more strikingly visible after his metamorphosis. Poor Quince, Snout, Flute, or Starveling would have given way entirely under the unexpected circumstance of becoming all at once the favoured minion of the Fairy Queen. Not so Bottom: never did weaver more gracefully or naturally reconcile himself to his fate. With as much ease as Don Quixote persuaded himself that he was the cynosure of the eyes, not only of Altisidora, but of some twenty others beside, does the gracious Bottom seriously incline to accept the homage of Titania and her attendant spirits. He accepts with the most easy indifference the caresses of the Elfin Queen--assigns to Peas-blossom the high office of scratching his head--grants to Cobweb letters of marque against the red-hipped bumble-bees--then dispatches Monsieur Cobweb to assist Peas-blossom in his difficult commision--and concludes by expressing the strongest desire towards a bottle of good hay--"Sweet hay, that hath no fellow." The moral of all which appears to be this, that a mixture of sheer stupidity and vanity will carry the possessor comfortably through all failures and difficulties.
A genuine "Bully Bottom," who has been "translated" as Quince has it, cares not for such rubs; he simply turns upon his side, and goes to sleep, exclaiming--"Let none of your people stir me; I have an exposition of sleep come upon me."