A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM: SHAKESPEARE'S MASQUE
Date, History & Sources
by: Karl Elze
|The following biography was originally published in Essays on Shakespeare. Trans. L. Dora Schmitz. London: Macmillan and Co., 1874.
In Germany, as well as in England, it has repeatedly been pointed out that A Midsummer Night's Dream in its character resembles a masque. It is true that we possess comparatively few indications for forming a correct estimate of the earlier state of masques, yet these few are sufficient to enable us to judge of the resemblance between them and Shakespeare's most charming comedy. We know that masques undoubtedly arose out of 'dumb shows,' whose chief attraction consisted in splendid costumes and decorations, in music and dances, and which were only gradually furnished with dialogue. From the fact that the object of masques was to celebrate marriages in high life and similar occasions, it is obvious that it was not their aim to solve a dramatic problem; in them the carrying out of an action and the delineation of characters always remained a secondary object, not to say that they were excluded. On the other hand allegories and mythological subjects predominated. These fanciful and ever-varying pageants, as Drake says, 'had higher aims and more important effects, and, while ostensibly constructed for the purpose of compliment and entertainment, either directly inculcated some lesson of moral wisdom, or more importantly obtained their end by impersonating the vices and virtues, and exhibiting a species of ethic drama.' Masques did not reach their highest perfection in the reign of Henry VIII, as Warton maintains, but under James I, through _Jonson_, whose masques are declared both by Gifford, his enthusiastic admirer and apologiser, and by the less prejudiced Drake, to be not only the flower of their species, but the flower of all Jonson's poetical productions as well. James's and Ben Jonson's pedantic learning met in the pleasure which both of them derived from this versified mythology, while it opened to the queen a welcome field for the display of her love of pomp. Jonson gave the masque a regular structure and definite articulation; above all, he made a sharp distinction between the actual masque and the anti-masque, or interlude as it had previously been called. The former was kept dignified and splendid, for in it appeared the noble amateurs who were emphatically styled the 'Maskers;' the farcical anti-masque, on the other hand, was performed partly by servants, partly by actors hired for the purpose, and was generally separated from the actual masque by a change of scene. It was developed into a comic counterpart of the masque, where all kinds of super- and sub-human creatures delighted the spectators with their 'Galliards' and 'Corantos,' whereas the 'Maskers' only took part in the minuet-like 'Measures.' The anti-masque was frequently divided into two semi-choruses, and several anti-masques sometimes occur in one and the same play. Jonson, who possessed little talent for humour and wit, and was inclined to pedantic pathos, accordingly thought rather disparagingly of anti-masques; in 'Neptune's Triumph' he calls them 'things so heterogene to all device, mere by-works, and at best outlandish nothings.'
It is, of course, out of the question to suppose that Jonson's masques influenced A Midsummer Night's Dream; it could more readily be conceived that the latter exercised an influence upon Jonson. At least in A Midsummer Night's Dream the two main portions, masque and anti-masque, are divided in an almost Jonsonian manner. The love stories of Theseus and the Athenian youths--to use Schlegel's words--'form, as it were, a splendid frame to the picture. Theseus and Hippolyta only represent, but with stately pomp.' Into this frame, which corresponds to the actual masque, the anti-masque is inserted, and the latter again is divided into the semi-choruses of the fairies (for they too belong to the anti-masque) and the clowns. Shakespeare has, of course, treated the whole with the most perfect artistic freedom. The two parts do not, as is frequently the case in masques, proceed internally unconnected by the side of each other, but are most skilfully interwoven. The anti-masque, in the scenes between Oberon and Titania, rises to the full poetic height of the masque, while the latter, in the dispute between Hermia and Helena, does indeed not enter the domain of the comic, but still diminishes in dignity, and Theseus in the fifth act actually descends to the jokes of clowns. The Bergo-mask dance performed by the clowns forcibly reminds us of the outlandish nothingness of the anti-masque, as pointed out by Jonson. Moreover, we feel throughout the play that like the masques it was originally intended for private entertainment. Oberon's song at the conclusion--
- Now, until the break of day,
- Through this house each fairy stray.
- To the best bride-bed will we,
- Which by us shall blessed be;
- And the issue there create
- Ever shall be fortunate.
- So shall all the couples three
- Ever true in loving be, &c.
evidently contains the poets congratulations upon a marriage; the lines can scarcely be understood otherwise.
The resemblance with the masques is still heightened by the completely lyrical, not to say operatic stamp of the Midsummer Night's Dream. There is no action which develops of internal necessity, and the poet was here, as Gervinus says, 'completely laid aside his great art of finding a motive for every action.' The action is only carried on by external causes, especially by magic, and indeed, to continue in Dr. Wolffel's words, 'not merely by one accident, which, as for instance, the Comedy of Errors, runs singly through the action, tying the knot of intrigue more and more close, until in the end it is recognized of itself, and thus readily unravels the complication, but from scene to scene it ever requires a new accident or charm to make the action proceed.' In a word, exactly as in the masques, everything is an occurrence and a living picture rather than a plot, and the delineation of the characters is accordingly given only with slight touches. Dr. Wolffel endeavours to show the characteristic distinctions between Lysander and Demetrius, as well as those between Hermia and Helena; he finds that the outlines of the acting figures are definite enough, but nevertheless is obliged to admit that they are less perceptibly drawn than usual. Accordingly to Ulrici, 'only the clumsiest aesthetic misapprehension can here demand a sharp and detailed delineation of characters;' every one of them he thinks is kept 'in a hazy twilight.'
These points of comparison sufficiently show the correctness of one of Halpin's remarks, namely, that in the Midsummer Night's Dream the masque imperceptibly has passed over into comedy. 'Both,' says he, 'glide into each other, and become indistinguishable by definition, in the same manner and degree as the individuals in the vegetable or animal kingdom, which naturalists term the varieties of a species.' Yet however imperceptible the transition may be, Shakespeare's play stands far above all masques, those of Jonson not excepted, and differs from them in essential points. Above all, it is obvious that Shakespeare has transferred the subject from the domain of learned poetry into the popular one, and thus has given it an imperishable and universally attractive substance. Just as he has transformed the vulgar chronicle-histories into truly dramatic plays, so in the Midsummer Night's Dream he has raised the masque into the highest form of art, as in fact his greatness in general consists in having carried all the existing dramatic species to the highest point of perfection. The difference between learned and popular poetry can nowhere appear more distinct than in comparing the Midsummer Night's Dream with Jonson's masques. Ben Jonson also has made Oberon the principal character of a masque; but what a contrast! Here almost all the figures, all the images and allusions, are the exclusive property of the scholar, and can neither be understood by, nor touch a chord of sympathy in the minds of the people. In the very first lines two Virgilian satyrs--Chromis and Mnasil--are introduced, who even to Shakespeare's best audience must have been unknown and unintelligible, and deserved to be hissed off the stage by the groundlings. Hence Jonson found it necessary to furnish his masques with copious notes, which would do honour to a German philologer; whereas Shakespeare never penned a note. Shakespeare in A Midsummer Night's Dream has by no means effaced the mythological background and the fabulous world of spirits peculiar to the masque, but has taken care to treat it all in an intelligible and charming manner. The scene is placed in Athens, where Shakespeare's public was frequently transposed; among others, in the older Taming of the Shrew, first printed in 1594. Theseus and the Amazon queen were well known to the English from Chaucer's Knight's Tale. Most genuinely national Shakespeare shows himself in the anti-masque; whose clowns are no sylvans, fauns, or cyclops, but English tradesmen, such as the poet may have become acquainted with in Stratford and London, such as performed the Ludos Coventriæ at Coventry. The spirits in the anti-masque are not borrowed from the ancient world of fables, but are creatures of medieval folklore, with which the English were upon more or less familar terms. Oberon, 'the dwarfe king of the fayryes,' is the Alberich of the German Heldenbuch, from which he passed over into Huon de Bordeaux, translated into English by Lord Berners about the year 1588. He became still better known through Robert Greene's play, The Scottish Historie of James IV, slaine at Flodden. Entermixed with a pleasant Comedie presented by Oboram, King of Fayeries,' which, it is true, did not appear in print till 1598, but no doubt was written and performed before 1590, as Greene died as early as 1592. Puck or Robin Goodfellow is a universally popular character. According to the 'Mad Pranks and Merry Jests of Robin Goodfellow,' edited by Mr. Collier, he was a son of Oberon by a 'proper young wench.' The story of Pyramus and Thisbe was as well known and as widely circulated since Chaucer's Legende of Thisbe of Babylon. In the year 1562-63 a book entitled Perymus and Thesbye was entered on the Stationers' Register. A few years later (1567) appeared the frequently reprinted translation of Golding's Metamorphosis. Another translation of this tragic love story is contained in the Gorgious Gallery of Gallant Inventions (1578), which was followed by 'A new sonnet of Pyramus and Thisbie', in The Handeful of Pleasant Delites (1584), and by 'A louely Poem of Pyramus and Thisbe,' appended to R. Greene's Historie of Arbasto, King of Denmarke (1626). These details are of importance, as they tend to show the art with which Shakespeare transformed the pedantic mythology of the masques into a popular one.
If, then, the similarity between the Midsummer Night's Dream and the masques may be taken for granted, the question arises for what patron and for what festive occasion it may have been written. Tieck, Ulrici, Gerald Massey, and others assume it to be almost self-evident that it was composed for Southampton's wedding. However, there are objections to this supposition which cannot be removed except by the most artificial and daring expedients. Meres' Palladis Tamia, in which the Midsummer Night's Dream is mentioned, was published in 1598, and Southampton's marriage did not take place till the end of that year, probably in November. In order to explain this contradiction Mr. Massey assumes that the play was composed some years earlier, at a time when it was believed that the queen would give her consent to Southampton's marriage; this he conjectures to have taken place in the year 1595. He further believes that the Midsummer Night's Dream was performed in January 1598, before Cecil and Southampton, shortly before their common departure for Paris. At that time (according to Rowland White) there had been a talk of Southampton's marrying Elizabeth Vernon, and possibly, he says, the marriage did take place as early as the spring. Rowland White further relates that on February 14 of the same year a grand entertainment took place at Essex House, at which two plays were performed which kept the company awake till one o'clock on the morning. Southampton was not present, as he had not yet returned from France. Mr. Massey would have us believe that the Midsummer Night's Dream was again one of these two plays. It is difficult to believe that Shakespeare should have celebrated Southampton's wedding by a play which had been acted before, and had been known for years. This is, however, but the beginning of a series of difficulties which in the course of our discussion we shall have to mention. Southampton's wedding, according to Mr. Massey's own statement, was not at all suited for a joyous and brilliant fête; for the queen, who sought to prevent the marriages of her favourites, and punished those who married without her consent, seems to have raised even greater difficulties in Southampton's case than in that of others. When therefore Southampton, in the beginning of 1598, started for the Continent, Elizabeth Vernon gave herself up to lamentations and tears. 'His (Southampton's) fair mistress,' writes Rowland White on February 1, 'doth wash her fairest face with too many tears. I pray God his going away bring her to no such infirmity which is as it were hereditary to her name.' On Feb. 12 he writes: 'My Lord Southampton is gone, and has left behind him a very desolate gentlewoman, that has almost wept out her fairest eyes.' It seems, however, as if the queen's threatening anger and the separation of the lovers had by no means been the only reason of these tears; this at least is hinted at in the following passage from Chamberlain's correspondence, dated August 30, 1598:--'Mistress Vernon is from the Court, and lies at Essex House. Some say she hath taken a venue under her girdle, and swells upon it; yet she complains not of foul play, but says my Lord of Southampton will justify it, and it is bruited underhand that he was lately here four days in great secret, of purpose to marry her, and effected it accordingly.' It would therefore seem that the marriage could not be delayed and must have taken place in the course of the summer. But whether or not this gossip was founded in fact, this much seems certain, that Southampton came over secretly from the Continent, was clandestinely married to Elizabeth Vernon, and after some days again left her, upon which the queen's anger, which both had foreseen, vented itself with all its force. Is it, in such circumstances, even in the slightest degree probable that the representation of the Midsummer Night's Dream, or of any other play, should have formed part of the marriage solemnities? How should the necessary preparations have been carried out so promptly and secretly, and how can the wedding-party be supposed to have found pleasure in theatrical amusements?
Besides this, there are allusions in the Midsummer Night's Dream which seem to be completely incompatible with its being composed at so late a date, and which rather force us to fix it much earlier. These allusions, however, can only be seen in their true light if the result of the investigation is forestalled and the corroborating arguments are left to be reviewed afterwards. To state it briefly, all indications point to the fact that the Midsummer Night's Dream was written for and performed at the marriage of the Earl of Essex in the year 1590. This date, which differs from what has hitherto been assumed, may even on account of its earliness excite objection with many critics, but very unjustly so. Mr. Cunningham has made a remark very well worth considering, which comes to our aid in the present case. 'Every newly-discovered fact concerning Shakespeare's plays,' he says, 'proves that he distinguished himself earlier and retired earlier than his commentators and biographers have hitherto been inclined to admit.' Malone, Drake, and Schlegel place our play among Shakespeare's earliest attempts in comedy; Malone assigns it to the year 1594; Drake fixes upon 1593, and would assume 1592 if Shakespeare, in his opinion, had not composed in that year two Parts of Henry VI, and if he was not convinced that not more than two plays ought to be ascribed to the poet in one and the same year. The Midsummer Night's Dream is evidently the production of that happy period of life when fancy is most lively and unrestrained in its creations; everything in it is lyrical effusion, unclouded cheerfulness, exempt from reflection; in a word, all is youth. This lyrical period Shakespeare had in all probability already passed in 1598. A comparison of the periods of life during which other great geniuses produced their works will show the truth of this assumption. It is a well known fact that Raphael painted the Sposalizio at the Brera in his twenty-first year, the Entombment in the Borghese Gallery and the Belle Jardinière in his twenty-fourth year, and that in his twenty-fifth he began the Stanzas; Mozart composed his Mithridates as early as his fourteenth year, the Idomeneo at twenty-four, and the Entführung aus dem Serail in his twenty-sixth year. Why should the precocity peculiar to genius not be ascribed to Shakespeare as well? From this point of view we have not the slightest doubt about placing the Midsummer Night's Dream in Shakespeare's twenty-sixth year of age; the inner probability however would certainly have but little weight were it not supported by important external arguments.
It is generally assumed that the Earl of Essex was an early patron of Shakespeare. Born on the 10th of November 1567, he was three years younger than the poet, and an intimate friend of Southampton, whom he somewhat resembled in manners and character; like him he was also a great patron of poets and scholars. He even made attempts at poetry himself, obtained the degree of M.A. from Cambridge, and was subsequently proclaimed Chancellor of that University. That Shakespeare knew the Earl has in so far been placed beyond a doubt, as from the letters of the Earl we gather that the poet borrowed features from the unfortunate Earl's character for the delineation of his Hamlet. It is evident also that Leicester's marriage with Essex's mother, 1578, served as a suggestion and prototype for the Hamlet-tragedy; we recognize Leicester as the model of King Claudius, the Countess of Essex (Lettice Knollys) as the Queen, and Robert Essex as Hamlet. The rebellion of the latter, which cost him his head, was altogether like Hamlet. Shakespeare's tragedy, to our conviction, was certainly anterior to this abortive attempt, and we point to it only on account of the striking agreement of the characters. The graceful compliment which Shakespeare pays the Earl in the prologue to the fifth act of Henry V is well known. It is therefore scarcely presuming too much to consider the earl's person and his relation to Shakespeare as a sufficient inducement to the latter to celebrate the nuptials of his patron in poetry. A second and no less inciting motive lay in the person of the bride. She was the widow of Sir Philip Sidney, who both as a patron and poet had stood very near to Shakespeare's circle, and had enjoyed the highest esteem and most cordial sympathy in all quarters. What is more likely therefore than that a portion of this sympathy and esteem should have been transferred to his widow, all the more so as by her devoted and heroic behaviour she herself had acquired a most just claim to it? Lady Frances Sidney was the only child of Sir Francis Walsingham (1536-1590), who, when ambassador in Paris, witnessed the horrors of the night of St. Bartholomew. It was there also that Sidney made his acquaintance, and ever since honoured him as a fatherly friend. Frances, the year of whose birth is unknown as the year of her death, had enjoyed a careful education, and distinguished herself by a well cultivated taste for literature. Married to Sidney in the year 1583, she bore him a daughter, Elizabeth Sidney, who died childless in 1615 as Lady Rutland. When Sidney in November 1585 was appointed Governor of Nliessingen, his wife accompanied him thither; she also nursed him when he was mortally wounded at Zutphen, and carried him to Arnheim, where he died on the 17th of October, 1586. Thence in all probability she conducted his body home. Shortly after her father's death, April 6th, 1590, she married the Earl of Essex, who had enjoyed the intimate friendship of her first husband. George Peele alludes to this friendship both in his Eclogue Gratulatory, which we shall presently mention more in detail, and in his Polyhymnia, where we read the following lines:--
- Sweet Sidney, fairest shepherd of our green,
- Well-letter'd warrior, whose successor he [viz. Essex]
- In love and arms had ever vow'd to be:
- In love and arms, O, may he so succeed
- As his deserts, as his desires would speed.
As the marriage was celebrated secretly, it seems not to have been entered in the church register, and the birth of the eldest child, Robert, which took place on the 22nd of January, 1591, is the only fact which furnishes us with a clue to its date. Essex was executed in 1601, and in the beginning of 1603 Frances, to the displeasure of her friends, entered upon a third marriage with the Earl of Clanrickarde, a handsome young Irishman, whom Charles I created Duke of St. Albans, and who expired in 1635. The Earl of Clanrickarde possessed some resemblance to Essex, so that even Queen Elizabeth conceived a passing affection for him.
It might seem as if the secrecy of this marriage, as in Southampton's case, was opposed to the supposition of a theatrical representation. But duo si faciunt idem, non est idem. Essex did not, like Southampton, come stealthily over from the Continent, and take his departure immediately after the celebration of his marriage. His 'fairest mistress' had had no cause to weep out her lovely eyes; on the contrary, there existed in the present case both inclination and wish for a joyous festival. A man of Essex's position, whom the people, in consideration of his descent from Edward III, and his relationship to Elizabeth (his mother, Lady Knollys, and Elizabeth were cousins), were inclined to regard as a prince, nay, who in their opinion, perhaps, had a better claim to the throne than Elizabeth herself--such a man, who moreover loved pomp and splendour, could not possibly have celebrated his wedding without song and music. Private theatricals were so common in Essex House that they could excite no suspicion, and the secrecy of their marriage was only of consequence to the young couple, till they could meet the queen with the fait accompli. The whole thing could very well have been so arranged that the queen would only have been informed of the main fact when her veto would be too late.
He who is acquainted with the half-mythological half-allegorical style of the masques, will not be surprised that we consider Theseus and Hippolyta as the representatives of the bridal couple itself. Like Theseus, the bridegroom, in spite of his youth, was a captain, and doubtless a huntsman as well; whether he--certainly in a different sense from Theseus--had won his bride by his sword, could only be intelligible to the initiated. As a youth of seventeen he had followed his step-father Leicester into the Netherlands, at the head of a troop of cavalry which he had himself raised and equipped in a most extravagant manner; at Zutphen, in 1586, he so distinguished himself that Leicester knighted him. Two years later he was appointed general in the army raised to oppose the ARmada, and soon after this--without the queen's permission--he took part in the campaign against Spain, in order to recover the crown of Portugal for Don Antonio. What Theseus says in the first scene of the fifth act--
- Where I have come, great clerks have purposed
- To greet me with premeditated welcomes, &c.--
literally applies to Essex, to whom George Peel dedicated his Eclogue Gratulatory upon his return from the Spanish campaign (1589, shortly before his marriage). No more appropriate designation than that of a 'great clerk' could have been chosen for the author of this eulogistic poem, which is composed in the learned style, and whose almost every stanza ends with the exclamation 'lo, io pæan!' A further resemblance between Essex and Theseus is to be found in another and more peaceful sphere--that of love. Like Theseus he courted man an 'Aeglé and Perigenia,' and then left them. The blame of this faithlessness is expressly put on Titania's shoulders by the poet. Elizabeth's maids of honour could tell tales of Essex both before and after his marriage; one of them, Mrs. Southwell, bore him a son, Walter Devereux, and Lady Bacon was in so far right when, in a letter to Essex's mother, she complained about 'thy Earl's unchaste manner of life.'
After what we have said about Lady Sidney's conduct during the war in the Netherlands, we shall scarcely be mistaken in conceiving her a strong, heroic woman, like Hippolyta--in a good sense--who in merry days delighted in the chase and in the barking of hounds, like the Amazon queen. How far the lines in the first scene of the second act--
- But that, forsooth, the bouncing Amazon,
- Your buskin'd mistress and your warrior love,
- To Theseus must be wedded--
were appropriate allusions or waggishly exaggerated fun can never be decided. Such subordinate features in the picture--however valuable and welcome--cannot have a decisive weight when the matter lies between the acceptation or the rejection of an hypothesis as a whole. A similar feature of this kind is the question--which we conceive merely as a possibility--whether two of Essex's servants or officers did enter upon their marriage at the same time as their master, so that the triple wedding in the play would have exactly corresponded to what actually took place. It does not even seem unlikely that the statements made in I. i., and III. i., about the moonshine may have coincided with reality; they are, it is true, not very definite.
The most celebrated personal allusion in the Midsummer Night's Dream is the well-known allegory commonly entitled 'Oberon's Vision,' which by its transcendent beauty throws all other allegories contained in the whole compass of masques completely into the shade. After several previous attempts at explanation, especially that of James Boaden, had paved the way, A.J. Halpin's learned and ingenious combination has, we think, established the fact that this allegory refers to the so-called Princely Pleasures of Kenilworth, where Leicester made a last attempt to win Elizabeth's hand. Halpin proves that the Moon is meant to represent the queen, who was frequently allegorised as Cynthia; the Earth, the Countess of Sheffield; the Little Western Flower, the Countess of Essex (Lettice Knollys), the mother of our Essex; and Cupid, the Earl of Leicester. It is very remarkable that the same allegories occur in Lyly's Endymion, where Elizabeth appears as 'Cynthia,' the Countess of Sheffield as 'Tellus,' Lettice Essex as 'Floscula,' and Leicester as 'Endymion.' 'The Mermaid on a Dolphin's back,' and 'the stars madly shooting from their spheres,' allude to the pageants and fireworks at Kenilworth; the mermaid is mentioned in almost the poet's own words by Gascoigne, Laneham, and Dugdale. Oberon's remark that he saw what Puck could not see, is referred to the circumstance that Shakespeare, through his connection with the Arden family, received information of secret proceedings which caused the failure of Leicester's designs upon the queen. For Elizabeth, according to all appearances, here received intelligence of Leicester's secret, or at least his pretended, marriage with Lady Sheffield, and it was Edward Arden through whom this secret was revealed. In any case the latter excited Leicester's anger by the fact that he not only refused to wear the Earl's livery during the queen's visit, but even ventured to reproach him on account of his 'private accesses' to the Countess of Essex. Arden, as is well known, was executed in 1583 at Leicester's instigation. All this is so plausible, and is supported with such cogent arguments by Halpin, that scarcely an objection can be raised against it. There remains but one point upon which the learned commentator has thrown no light, namely, what was the poet's reason and motive for weaving this old and forgotten story into his play. Elizabeth's visit to Kenilworth took place in the year 1575; had the Midsummer Night's Dream really been composed for Southampton's marriage, there would have been a period of no less than twenty-three years between the two occurrences. What interest could Southampton--who was born but two years before the Princely Pleasures--have taken in these events? Who in fact could have taken any interest in them except the families concerned, above all the Essex family? The whole allegory, according to our conviction, only obtains its true explanation and significance, if the Midsummer Night's Dream was the play performed at Essex's wedding.
Everything well considered, it will scarcely be denied that, in the strange love intrigues in the Midsummer Night's Dream, Shakespeare has mirrored the love affairs of the aristocracy. The object of his poetry was, as he himself has stated it in Hamlet, to hold up the mirror to nature. The complication of the loves of Lysander, Demetrius, Hermia, and Helena, as well as Titania's inexplicable passion for the ass-headed Bottom, doubtless had the greatest analogy to the love affairs at Court, in which the families of Leicester, Essex, and Sidney played the most prominent parts. These families, as in their whole social position, so especially in regard to their love affairs, considered themselves as a privileged caste, who, regardless of the restraints and conventionalities of ordinary life, might give free reins to all their whims and inclinations. In proof of this we need only refer to Essex's sister, Lady Penelope Rich, of 'whose unchaste manner of life' Lady Bacon would have had still more reason to complain than of her brother's. All the ladies of these families were beautiful, gifted, and passionate. Even the more virtuous among them were not satisfied with less than two or three marriages. The queen's flirtations were certainly no very edifying example.
Now, from this point of view the love affairs at Kenilworth form an almost indispensable link in the chain. They were too important a turning-point in the fortunes of the Essex family for the poet to leave them unnoticed. But Shakespeare does not mention the occurrence at random; with the subtlest device he introduces it for the attainment of a definite object. The compliment paid to the queen on this opportunity that she alone has come forth out of the general confusion 'in maiden meditation fancy free,' is anything but unintentional. Shakespeare was no flatterer, and even the pleasing gracefulness and poetic beauty of this homage would have scarcely tempted him, had he not meant to render his patron Essex a service by flattering the queen. His intention was that this compliment, like a drop of the otto of roses, should pacify the queen, and dispose her favourably to the Earl's marriage. In this he only followed Sidney, who in his masque The Lady of May, had made use of a similar device to obtain Elizabeth's consent to a marriage. The fact of the queen not having been present at the performance does not alter the case; the poet was certain that she would receive an account of his compliment as well as of all the rest. The result has indeed shown that he did but partially succeed with the disagreeable old virago; Essex came off as it were with a black eye, perhaps in consequence of this very line. He was not, like Southampton and others, sent to prison, only his young wife was ordered 'to live quite retired in her mother's house.'
Now, however, we meet with a difficulty. It will probably be admitted that the allusion to the festival at kenilworth was of interest to the Essex family and to them alone; but the reply will be that it was a very painful interest to recall the guilty life of the bride-groom's mother. Will not such an allusion be justly described as wanting in tact on the part of the poet, nay, simply as a blunder? We think not, and believe that the erroneousness of such an objection can be shown without any great difficulty. First, let us in a few words establish the facts. Lettice Knollys, born in 1540, was married in 1561 or 1562, to Walter Devereux, who was her junior by a year, and subsequently became the first Earl of Essex. In the years 1575-76 her husband, partly through the influence of Leicester, was absent for some length of time as Governor of Ulster and Earl Marshal of Ireland, while the Countess remained at home, and according to popular rumour entered into an equivocal relation with Leicester. On the 22nd of September, 1576, he died at Dublin, after twenty days' illness. People talked of poison, and pointed to Leicester as the instigator of the pretended crime. The Elizabethan period was in general very apt to be suspicious in regard to poison, and so credulous in this respect that it was once believed that the queen's saddle had been poisoned in order to despatch her. The fact that Lady Essex, a few days after her husband's death--like Gertrude in Hamlet--was secretly married to Leicester, must of course have added fuel to these reports; the wedded couple, however, paid no attention to them, and even knew how to meet the queen's anger. On the 4th of September, 1588, Leicester died suddenly, and, as report said, likewise by poison: people regarded his death as a just punishment for his having, as they believed, poisoned others. Lettice, now forty-nine years of age, in the following july married her groom Sir Christopher Blount, who was not only her inferior in rank, but did not even stand high in reputation. Lettice survived also her third husband, who took part in her son's rebellion and was executed. After enjoying an unimpaired health of body and mind to an extreme old age, she died on Christmas morning, 1634, at the age of ninety-four, and was buried by the side of her second husband in St. Mary's Church, Warwick.
That Walter Essex did not die of poison, but of dysentery, is now proved; consequently the suspicion that his wife had a hand in his death, falls to the ground. It is also questionable whether, during his life-time, she actually kept up a criminal intercourse with Leicester, so that her fault would be confined simply to her over-hasty marriage with the latter. Devereux not unjustly maintains that Lettice's father, the strict old Puritan, who kept her continually under his eye, would not have tolerated such a love affair; it was to satisfy his demand that his daughter's clandestine marriage with Leicester had to be proclaimed before witnesses in 1578. Devereux also directs attention to the fact that Leicester, who certainly had criminal intentions in regard to Lady Essex, would hardly have married her had he been able to attain his object in another way. It is true that Lettice, after she had become Leicester's wife, was never again allowed to appear at Court, and that Elizabeth after many entreaties only once consented to meet her elsewhere (1598). This displeasure on the queen's part however, is by no means a sufficient proof of Lettice's guilt, but can very well be explained by Elizabeth's jealousy, which may have been increased by slander and intrigues. Moreover it speaks in Lettice's favour that she continued on good terms with her son by her first marriage; he was from the first and ever afterwards her 'Sweet Robino,' and sided with her against the queen. In one of his letters (probably of the year 1587) he writes: 'From thence, she (viz. Elizabeth) came to speak bitterly against my mother, which because I could not endure to see me and my house disgraced (the only matter which both her choler and the practice of mine enemies had to work upon) I told her,' &c.
This sufficiently proves that the allusion to the 'little western flower' could have given no offence to the family, least of all in the delicate and truly poetical words in which the poet has couched it. The expression, that the flower which before was milk-white became 'purple with love's wound,' cannot have referred to the rumours about her husband's death, because he did not die a bloody death. The flower which maidens call 'Love-in-idleness' is the 'viola tricolor' of botanists; whether there exists a 'viola purpuræ' we know not, but according to Halpin there certainly is a 'viola lactæ' Shakespeare does not even drop the slightest hint of Lettice's guilt, on the contrary he makes the love affairs of mortals appear as the results of events occurring in the land of spirits, as the consequences of roguish charms. There is as little question about guilt in this privileged aristocracy as among the fairies themselves. What could the little western flower do if Oberon laid a juice on her eyelid that filled her with a maddening love? How could she resist the 'love-shaft' which struck her 'as it should pierce a hundred thousand hearts?' Why had her husband left her heart unoccupied, and made her a 'love-in-idleness?' Might she not just as well have accompanied him to Ireland as Lady Sidney followed hers to Holland? If blame was to fall on anyone, it was upon the Earl of Leicester, who was dead at the time of Essex's marriage, and therefore did not require any particular delicacy at the poet's hands. Shakespeare represents all these intricacies of love as the dreams and visions of an oppressive mid-summer's night; Essex's marriage is the joyful awakening and the happy ending. Who will venture to say whether, apart from all this, the poet did not find in the death of his relative, who had fallen an innocent victim to these love affairs, a personal incitement to shake off these troubles from his mind by bringing them, as it were, to a poetic close?
We must, moreover, not forget to allow to the poet that freedom of viewing things, which in these matters prevailed at the Court of Elizabeth in an incomparably higher degree than at that of Victoria. The Elizabethan stage in particular enjoyed far greater privileges, even in regard to the sovereign, than are now-a-days admissible. Halpin has adduced such striking examples of this freedom as to remove all doubts; examples in comparison with which Oberon's vision is extremely moderate and delicate. It was only when the liberty of the stage went too far, or when the increasing Puritanical influences could not be resisted, that attempts were made to check such allusions, as it is proved by a case communicated by F. von Raumer. This was a complaint made in April 1608 by the French ambassador to forbid the representation of Chapman's Duke of Biron, and to punish the actors, because the queen of France appeared in this play, and gave Mademoiselle de Verneuil a box on the ear. A few days before, James I had been personated on the stage, and had scarcely paid any attention to the circumstance. Under such circumstances it seems obvious that Shakespeare's allusion to the love affairs of the mother of the Earl of Essex, at his marriage, is a perfectly unobjectionable supposition. The poet, nevertheless, at the end of the play does not forget to bring forward an excuse in case that, contrary to his expectation, one should be needed. Puck in the concluding speech says:--
- If we shadows have offended
- Think but this, and all is mended,
- That you have but slumber'd here
- While these visions did appear.
- And this weak and idle theme,
- No more yielding but a dream,
- Gentles, do not reprehend:
- If you pardon, we will mend.
These lines would be flat and meaningless if they had not been spoken at Essex's wedding. The pardon asked for will certainly have been granted the more readily, as it could scarcely have escaped those interested in the play that, as we have shown, the object of the passage in question was to put in a good word for them with the queen.
We have said that in the 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. 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.
Before we conclude, we have still to consider two more passages in the play, which have been made use of for determining the date of its origin. The first is that speech of her quarrel with Oberon upon nature, particularly upon the state of the weather:--
- And never, since the middle summer's spring,
- Met we on hill, in dale, forest, or mead, &c.
In a MS. of the astrologer, Dr. Simon Forman, Mr. Halliwell has discovered a meteorological account of the year 1591, which bears a close resemblance to this passage, and is moreover fully borne out by Stowe in his Chronicle. Mr. Halliwell therefore concludes that the abnormal summer of that year must have been present to the poet's mind, and accordingly fixes the Midsummer Night's Dream in the autumn of 1594. But this argumentation is very deceptive, for cold summers, great inundations, and mild winters (which is the whole extent of the abnormal state of the weather), are by no means of rare occurrence. Dyce is of quite different opinion, and dismisses the whole supposition as 'ridiculous.' Even if we were inclined to assent to Mr. Halliwell's arguments, there would still remain another means of bringing his conjecture in unison with ours, namely to regard the passage as a subsequent interpolation. To this method of explanation Mr. Halliwell himself resorts in reference to the second passage which is here to be considered, viz., the well-known lines:--
- The thrice three Muses mourning for the death
- Of Learning, late deceas'd in beggary.
Mr. Halliwell points out that three of the proposals made by the Athenian chamberlain agree with the story and costume of the play, but that this fourth, if taken for a contemporaneous allusion, would not be in keeping. Hence he concludes that either the mourning of the muses for the death of Learning is not intended to be an allusion to any definite person--and this is also Dyce's opinion, who again denounces the opposite as 'ridiculous'--or that the lines if really referring to Spenser's death (Jan. 16th, 1599), must be considered a later insertion. It is an old story that learning is doomed to starve; the old epigram says:--
Sed vacuos loculos pauper Homerus habet.
We might therefore easily agree with the opinion first set forth by Mr. Halliwell. However, in spite of the curse of ridicule which Dyce has laid upon any attempt to the contrary, we are more inclined to see a personal allusion in the lines; an allusion moreover, which strikingly serves to strengthen our hypothesis. In all probability the passage refers to Spenser, and was subsequently added as an additional compliment to Essex. It is well known that Spenser was buried at Essex's expense, and that Essex sent the poet, who was lying on his deathbed, twenty gold pieces, which the latter, according to Ben Jonson's account, refused, with the words, that he had no more time to spend them. That this generous help, in spite of its coming too late, was regarded by public opinion as greatly redounding to the Earl's honour, is proved by Lane's Triton Trumpet, of which Mr. Halliwell gives the following extract:--
- Yon (viz. in England) they from my deere Spenser stood alooff,
- When verbale drones of virtuous merit scant
- Suffred that gentile poet die of want;
- One onelie knowinge generositie,
- And findinge he would crave for modestie,
- Him sent in greatest sicknes, crownes good store,
- So Robert Essex did (honors decore)
- Nathles of pininge grief, and wantes decaie,
- Hee much thoncke that slowt Earle, that thus gann saie,
- The medicine comes too late to the pacient,
- Tho died.
Other commentators refer the perplexing lines to Spenser's poem The Tears of the Muses (On the neglect and contempt of Learning), which appeared in 1591. Even this would not upset our supposition, for in all probability this poem of Spenser, like so many others, had been circulated for some time in MS. before it appeared in print; so that both Shakespeare and Essex might very well have known it as early as 1590. Knight's conjecture however, that the lines might allude to Greene, who died on September 3rd 1592 in abject poverty, must be decidedly rejected. Not only was Greene too insignificant for such a posthumous encomium, but Shakespeare would have sullied his pure and delicate poetry had he sought to claim the sympathy of his audience for a man who by disgraceful excesses and immorality had brought his misery upon himself. If the passage contains any allusion at all, in our opinion it can only refer to Spenser's death; in both cases--whether there be an allusion or not--it does not affect our combination.
Thus from whatever side we may view the Midsummer Night's Dream, and whatever points we may take into consideration, everything agrees with the supposition that it was written in the spring of the year 1590, for the wedding of the Earl of Essex with Lady Sidney. A more select audience than were assembled on that occasion the poet could not have desired, and the bridal party, their relatives and guests, on their part, could not have enjoyed a lovelier and more charming poem. At all events their judgment must have sounded very different from that of Samuel Pepys--President of the Royal Society--who, on the 29th of September, 1662, made the following entry in his diary: 'To the King's Theatre, where we saw "Midsummer Night's Dream," which I had never seen before, nor shall ever again, for it is the most insipid ridiculous play, that I ever saw in my life.'