One of the striking things about A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the extent to which the popular understanding of the play is still in many respects a 19th-century one, and the manner in which theatrical and critical approaches in the 20th century have broken sharply with precedent. From the play’s composition in the Elizabethan era until the late Victorian times, there is almost no criticism on the play that breaks with the Romantic interpretation of Dream as a prototype of Peter Pan, a fairy-tale for the theatre, with Puck and company flying about on wires and sprinkling their magic pixie dust through the air.
This understanding shifted abruptly in 1895, with George Bernard Shaw’s astonishingly insightful review. Shakespeare, as Shaw writes, arrives in Dream at a “point of artistic perfection”:
the extraordinarily human and accurate manner in which the play catches the atmosphere of a dream […] Here is the pursuit of the man we cannot catch, the flight from the man we cannot see; here is the perpetual returning to the same place, the crazy alteration in the very objects of our desire, the substitution of one face for another face, the putting of wrong souls in the wrong bodies, the fantastic disloyalties of the night, all this is as obvious as it is important.
Shaw continues, writing on the Shakespearean dreamland’s remarkable mix of melancholy and comedy:
The events in the wandering wood are in themselves, and regarded as in broad daylight, not merely melancholy but bitterly cruel and ignominious. But yet by the spreading of an atmosphere as magic as the fog of Puck, Shakespeare contrives to make the whole matter mysteriously hilarious while it is palpably tragic, and mysteriously charitable, while it is in itself cynical. He contrives somehow to rob tragedy and treachery of their full sharpness, just as a toothache or a deadly danger from a tiger, or a precipice, is robbed of its sharpness in a pleasant dream. The creation of a brooding sentiment like this, a sentiment not merely independent of but actually opposed to the events, is a much greater triumph of art that the creation of the character of Othello.
What makes Shaw’s writing on the play so remarkable is the manner in which he understands and then dramatizes, in the manner a playwright, the metamorphic world of the forest. Rather than merely “wild and fantastical,” as Shaw points out, the forest is also theatrical and elastic, a world containing terrors and dangers as well as love and magic, one that is potentially infinite in its permutations. Writing at the onset of the Freudian era, Shaw saw the play as a representation of the unconscious mind. But his insight into how the play functions is more than just psychology. Critics and directors have been indebted to him ever since.
Writing in 1957, Canadian critic Northrop Frye compared the forest to the Shakespearean green world:
The green world has analogies to the dream world that we create out of our own desires. Shakespearean comedy illustrates, as clearly as any mythos we have, the archetypal function of literature in visualizing the world of desire, not as an escape from “reality,” but as the genuine form of the world that human life tries to imitate.
In other words, the forest in Dream is the real world of the imagination, given form.
Modern productions have sought increasingly to realize this metamorphic world by appealing to the imagination rather than illusion. From Max Reinhardt’s 1905 dream of an endlessly revolving forest to Peter Brook’s 1970 “white box” production at the Royal Shakespeare Company, directors have accentuated the theatrical properties of Shakespeare’s forest. In 1981, at Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage, David Chambers directed a production in which the fairies entered and exited through a pool built into the floor, shimmering into and out of the spectator’s eyesight. In the 20th century, the play has become apparent as a profound meditation on the experience of the theatre itself.
And isn’t this the most traditional of approaches? After all, A Midsummer Night’s Dream was initially played on a bare stage, before a paying audience, with Theseus and Hippolyta likely doubling the roles of Oberon and Titania, and Puck doubling as Philostrate. The Mechanicals’ act 5 performance of Pyramus and Thisbe is perhaps the Bard’s most sustained exploration of the limits of theatrical illusionism—and of that theatrical illusion’s strangely moving power. As far as I know, no great work of criticism exists on this play’s experiments with empty space. As often happens, the work on stages has outpaced the work on the page.
Drew Lichtenberg is the Literary Associate at STC and production dramaturg for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He holds an MFA in Dramaturgy and Dramatic Criticism from Yale School of Drama.