Table of Contents



Some older and more recent sources:

Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare the Invention of the Human. New York: Riverhead Books, 1998.

Garber, Marjorie. Shakespeare After All. New York: Pantheon, 2004

Greenblatt, Stephen. Will in the World. New York: W.W. Norton, 2004.

MacCaffrey, Wallace. Elizabeth I. New York: Edward Arnold, 1993.

McGill, Colin. Shakespeare's Philosophy. New York: Harper Collins, 2006.

Rowse, A.L. Shakespeare: A Biography. New York: Harper and Row, 1963.

Schoenbaum, S. William Shakespeare, A Compact Documentary Life. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.

Wood, Michael. Shakespeare. New York: Basic Books, 2003.

Biographical Circumstances:

The play was composed in Shakespeare's Early Period, written in the mid 1590's around the time of Romeo and Juliet. Generically, Greenblatt notes regarding the Bottom-Corinthians (IV,I,199 ff) that Shakespeare, with an career-eye to the future, "...deftly turned the dream of the sacred into popular entertainment." (p. 34)...and thus began his career.

...from Sacred Scripture:

That we speak of, is wisdom among them that are perfect: not the wisdom of this world neither of the rulers of this world (which go to nought) but we speak the wisdom of (God, which is in secret and lieth hidden, which God ordained before the world unto our glory; which wisdom none of the rulers of the WORLD knew. For had they known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But as it is written: the eye hath not seen, and the ear hath not heard, nether have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him. But God hath opened them unto us by his spirit. For the spirit searches all things, yes the bottom of God's secrete. (I Corinthians ii. )

to which we compare the final lines in IV,i:

Bottom: [Awaking] When my cue comes, call me, and I will answer. My
next is 'Most fair Pyramus.' Heigh-ho! Peter Quince! Flute, the
bellows-mender! Snout, the tinker! Starveling! God's my life,
stol'n hence, and left me asleep! I have had a most rare vision.
I have had a dream, past the wit of man to say what dream it was.
Man is but an ass if he go about to expound this dream. Methought
I was- there is no man can tell what. Methought I was, and
methought I had, but man is but a patch'd fool, if he will offer
to say what methought I had. The eye of man hath not heard, the
ear of man hath not seen, man's hand is not able to taste, his
tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report, what my dream was. I
will get Peter Quince to write a ballad of this dream. It shall
be call'd 'Bottom's Dream,' because it hath no bottom; and I will
sing it in the latter end of a play, before the Duke.
Peradventure, to make it the more gracious, I shall sing it at
her death.

Bottom's name indeed is appropriate; for he is bottomless, being given the chance to see more with his ear and hearing more with his eye than the rest. Now perhaps ironically recall the Duke's lines that open V,i:

Theseus: More strange than true. I never may believe
These antique fables, nor these fairy toys.
Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.
The lunatic, the lover, and the poet,
Are of imagination all compact.
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold;
That is the madman. The lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen's beauty in a brow of Egypt.
The poet's eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
Such tricks hath strong imagination
That, if it would but apprehend some joy,
It comprehends some bringer of that joy;
Or in the night, imagining some fear,
How easy is a bush suppos'd a bear?

The Duke may be skeptical of such "tricks', but Shakespeare is not. Sacred Scripture frequently posits the child as metaphor for those most worthy of heaven, as did Wordsworth who likewise knows who the father really is and why. Autobiographically, Shakespeare was well on his way.

Specific Circumstances of Composition:

The Countess of Southampton, a Catholic widow with a son reluctant to marry, herself wed Sir Thomas Heneage, court treasurer and a Protestant, perhaps for protection. If recent biographies such as Greenblatt's and Wood's are correct, Shakespeare's 'catholic' heritage was subversive. The marriage took place on May 2, 1594, and Midsummer Night's Dream may have been written to celebrate the wedding.

The Queen herself may have been present, and hence from the play emerges a controversial passage: Theseus' edict to the reluctant Hermia,

Theseus: Either to die the death, or to abjure
For ever the society of men.
Therefore, fair Hermia, question your desires,
Know of your youth, examine well your blood,
Whether, if you yield not to your father's choice,
You can endure the livery of a nun,
For aye to be shady cloister mew'd,
To live a barren sister all your life,
Chanting faint hymns to the cold fruitless moon.
Thrice-blessed they that master so their blood
To undergo such maiden pilgrimage;
But earthlier happy is the rose distill'd
Than that which withering on the virgin thorn
Grows, lives, and dies, in single blessedness. (I,i, 70 ff)

The lines might be allude to the young earl of the sonnets who would not marry if Southampton is the patron vs. Pembroke. If, however, the passage is a reference to the unmarried Queen Elizabeth, what legal problems might have been occasioned by such a public reference?

I wonder too, if the references to male prerogatives might recall the Elizabeth and her [in] famous father? Wallace MacCaffrey notes in his biography of the Queen, "Since her father [Henry] had not only executed but also divorced her mother, Elizabeth was now a bastard and deprived of the title of princess...." (P. 5). Those events and the death of her father could not have been more dramatizing, but would Shakespeare have dared to dramatize them in the beginning of his career, however obliquely? Comedian Bob Newhart, however, remarked that all good comedy is subversive, and later in Shakespeare's career, we recall his Richard II and Essex.

Rowse believes that,

With A Midsummer Night's Dream, he achieved the first of his undoubted masterpieces, a work approaching perfection. In addition, there is the extraordinary originality of the thistledown and moonshine out of which it is made, the fairy-lore he brought with him from his childhood...the country mechanicals, the imperishably real Bottom the weaver, the mixed-up lovers wandering in the forest...Shakespeare may be regarded as the creator of this fairy tale genre...

There are more profound implications lightly suggested in the Dream, the conviction that underlies the tragedies: 'that the world of sense perception in which we live is but the surface of a vaster unseen world by which the action of men are affected or overruled.' (p. 203)

My gothic web site explores the Jungian implications of these lines...Athens is reason, the forest is passion and the release of the id. Kurtz knew in Heart of Darkness, and so did Yoda who tried to teach both Luke and his father with varying degrees of success. As Rowse observed, the line between comedy and tragedy often blurs, especially with Shakespeare.