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'A Midsummer Nights Dream' in Context

'A Midsummer Nights Dream' in Context

Keith Linley


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Everything you need to know about the cultural contexts of 'A Midsummer Night’s Dream'. Is this just a light-hearted romp or is Shakespeare trying to make serious points about courtship, love, marriage and human folly? This book provides detailed in-depth discussion of the various influences that an Elizabethan audience would have brought to interpreting the play. How did people think about the world, about God, about sin, about kings, about civilized conduct, about the magic and madness of love and attraction? Historical, literary, political, sociological backgrounds are explained within the biblical-moral matrices by which the play would have been judged. This book links real life in the late 1590s to the world on the stage. Discover the orthodox beliefs people held about religion. Meet the Devil, Sin and Death. Learn about the social hierarchy, gender relationships, court corruption, class tensions, the literary profile of the time, attitudes to comedy – and all the subversions, transgressions, and oppositions that made the play a hilarious farce but also an unsettling picture of a world so close to disaster.

The Elizabethan popular audience had a natural love of clowning, slapstick and the mayhem that was released when the rules of society were relaxed, broken or subverted. A play set on Midsummer Night and structured as a dream was going to be fun and full of the resonances associated with a festal day that had age old overtones of love, marriage, misrule and jolllity. Midsummer was traditionally celebrated with dancing and feasting and always involved secret assignations in the woods later when it was dark. Indeed, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a play with a bit of everything – magic, moonlight, mayhem, love’s mad entanglements, fairies, mistakes, mechanicals as mummers, all set in the spookiness of the woods at midnight - and all of it provoking laughter.

The business of comedy was more important and serious than simply raising a laugh. It has always served a much graver purpose than mere humorous entertainment, but has also been regarded by religious, moral and cultural guardians as a lesser form than tragedy and a morally questionable one. In a world where society was strictly stratified even the arts had hierarchies. In painting devotional studies (Annunciations, Nativities, Crucifixions) were thought to be the highest endeavour, and historical subjects were thought superior to landscape and portraiture. Grotesque topics of common life (card-playing, village dances, tavern scenes) were thought of as very low art. In literature the epic poem, tragic drama, religious poetry, history plays, even lyrics and love verses were thought of as higher forms than mere comedy. Though the plays of Terence and Plautus were studied, translated and performed by schoolboys and undergraduates, and the satires of Juvenal and Horace were similarly on educational syllabuses, comedy was regarded with suspicion. It was thought to be a too vulgar form, too associated with the bourgeoisie and the commoners, too concerned with trickery, knavery and sex.

 It would not be amiss to re-title the play A Midsummer Night’s Nightmare, for, though matters in Athens are complicated and tense enough, the escape to the woods releases all manner of dark things and makes the entanglements even worse. The piece can be acted in two ways. The traditional approach has been to display it as a fast-moving, action-packed, farcical romp, a carnival of silliness; a light-hearted celebration of human foolishness, full of mistakes and misperceptions, nonsense and laughter, but turning out all right in the end, and not to be taken seriously as it is only a playful entertainment. It may also be seen as a play where oppressiveness, manipulation, misplaced love, hatred and menace dominate and the inconstancy of the human heart is disturbingly exposed. Hermia escapes from Egeus’ dictatorial threats only to find herself (and her complacent assumption of happiness to come in exile) at the mercy of forces she cannot control and does not understand. What happens in the woods is unsettling and represents the more frightening fears that lurk in the psyche and emerge in dreams. It is the woods that provoke the dream/nightmare element.

Poet, painter, teacher and academic, Keith Linley has lectured at university and given papers at conferences and book festivals on a range of literary subjects.

"Shakespeare’s great comedy, to which Linley provides an excellent guide.'
—Henry S. Turner, 'Recent Studies in Tudor and Stuart Drama', SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, Volume 58, Number 2, Spring, 2018, pp. 473-537"

‘A splendid, lucid and engaging work; the key to its success is the scholarly way we are drawn into the world which produced the Dream. Linley’s style adds to the reader’s experience: vibrant, lively and lit with real enthusiasm for his subject.’ Wendy Ellis, OCR A Level English Literature Team Leader

‘This witty and scholarly companion will easily engage a range of readers, especially those wishing to gain an insight into the historical attitudes and the social and political systems that surrounded the creation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.’ Jill Leese, English Teacher, OCR Team Leader

Table of Contents

Section Title Page Action Price
Cover Cover1
Front Matter i
Half-title i
Title page iii
Copyright information iv
Table of contents v
Introduction 1
About this book 1
What is a Context? 2
Further Reading 5
Useful Editions 5
Critical Works 5
Articles 5
PART I The Inherited Past 7
Prologue 9
The Setting 9
Chapter (1-8) 17
Chapter 1 The Historical Context 17
1.1 The Elizabethan Context: An Overview 17
Chapter 2 The Elizabethan World Order: From Divinity to Dust 25
2.1 Cosmology 27
2.2 The Great Chain of Being 31
2.3 Human Hierarchy 35
2.4 The Social Pyramid of Power 38
2.5 The Better Sort 41
2.6 The Middling Sort 46
2.7 The Lower Orders 48
2.8 The Theory of the Humours 51
2.9 The Rest of Creation 53
2.10 Order 59
Chapter 3 Sin, Death and The Prince of Darkness 73
3.1 Sin and Death 81
Chapter 4 The Seven Cardinal Virtues 97
Chapter 5 Kingship 105
5.1 Preparation for Rule 111
5.2 A King’s View of His Office 114
5.3 Theseus and Queen Elizabeth 122
Chapter 6 Patriarchy, Family Authority and Gender Relationships 125
6.1 Patriarchy and a Woman’s Place 125
6.2 Renaissance Improvements 149
Chapter 7 Man in his Place 159
Chapter 8 Images of Disorder: The Religious Context 167
8.1 Unsettling Questions 169
PART II The Elizabethan Present 173
Chapter (9-15) 175
Chapter 9 The Context of Comedy 175
Chapter 10 Theseus and The Setting 187
Chapter 11 Puck's Permutations: The \nContext of Love 195
Chapter 12 ‘Sweet Moon’: The Woods and \nThe Context of Magic 211
12.1 Moonlight and Madness 211
12.2 The Ambiguous Status of Magic 221
12.3 John Dee 234
13.1 Genre 239
13.2 The Text Alone 241
13.3 A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Shakespeare’s Oeuvre 242
13.4 The Literature of the Time 244
13.5 Sources 250
13.6 Some Critical Reactions 259
Chapter 14 Playing Parts 263
Chapter 15 Transgressions and Translations 273
End Matter 285
Bibliography 285
Index 291