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Annotated Bibliography on A Midsummer Night's Dream-- Sources for Learning About Shakespeare's Beloved Comedy


Although I initially wished to compose a fairly broad list of sources, providing a reasonably instructive general introduction to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, an enormous—and enormously daunting—wealth of criticism exists surrounding the play. Therefore, while I have maintained the determination to compile a general list, including essays which I feel offer an introduction to a number of the most prominent questions surrounding the play, I have also tried to set certain limits. First, while I found plenty of interesting criticism of the play dating from the eighteenth century forward, [1] I have chosen to limit the included sources to criticism from approximately the last fifty years. Within these parameters, I have additionally tried to include mostly recent criticism—from the late eighties forward, with the exception of a few texts that I found to be foundational, due to finding repeated reference to them, both in sources that I have chosen and ones that I have left out. Finally, while I have tried to include information that provides a fairly broad introduction to the play rather than pursuing a specific interest, I have also attempted to present sources that can be seen as in dialogue with one another, to give readers a sense of the questions surrounding the play as controversies with an interesting history, to which many possible answers have been proposed. In particular, I feel the “foundational” texts by Barber, Briggs, Kott, and Montrose serve this purpose when read alongside recent responses from Montrose and Williams, Kott and Landers, Maher, and Williams again, respectively.

Finally, for those interested in exploring Midsummer in further depth than this list accommodates, I would recommend exploring the many playtexts currently available as a springboard to further research. While there is no Arden 3 edition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Harold Brooks’ Arden 2 provides an extensive introduction with commentary on scholarship available up to the 1970s, and the Oxford version provides a more recent general introduction. However, beyond these, I would encourage readers to find editions of the play tailored to their specific needs. For those interested in performance, Trevor R. Griffiths’ edition, arranged for the Shakespeare in Production series, provides a list of notable productions, a detailed and illustrated introduction detailing Midsummer’s history on stage, and a heavily annotated playtext, featuring footnotes remarking on notable directing, acting, costuming, prop, and set choices made in previous productions. Finally, for those more interested in historical context, the Bedford Texts and Contexts series features an edition with a detailed appendix that works to put the text in conversation with related contemporary documents.

[1] For literary criticism predating 1920, interested readers may refer to the A Midsummer Night’s Dream volume of Shakespeare: The Critical Tradition, edited by Judith M. and Richard F. Kennedy. Additionally, Shakespeare in the Theatre: An Anthology of Criticism, edited by Stanley Wells provides the remarks of 18th-20th century luminaries on many of Shakespeare’s plays, including Hazlitt’s and Shaw’s thoughts on A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Works Cited

Barber, C.L. “May Games and Metamorphoses on a Midsummer Night.” Shakespeare’s Festive Comedy: A Study of Dramatic Form and its Relation to Social Custom. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1972. 119-62. Print.

In this chapter from Shakespeare’s Festive Comedy, Barber envisions A Midsummer Night’s Dream as “the common May game presided over by an aristocratic garden god” (122). Although the author’s claim that we can clearly identify the play as an entertainment written to celebrate a wedding has come under contention by more recent scholars (See Montrose and Williams.), this does not invalidate his suggestion that the action of the play mimics early modern spring holiday celebrations. Additionally, the chapter offers some interesting discussion of the separation between “real and fantastic” in the play, which calls attention to its own artificiality while also leaving room for doubt and ambiguity (162).

Briggs, K.M. “Shakespeare’s Fairies.” The Anatomy of Puck: An Examination of Fairy Beliefs Among Shakespeare’s Contemporaries and Successors. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1959. 44-55. Print.

As indicated by its title, the full book would be a useful resource for those interested in an in-depth exploration of the literary and historical context and legacy of Midsummer’s fairies. For those of more casual interest, this chapter provides a brief examination of specifically Shakespearean fairies, including those seen in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet, The Merry Wives of Windsor and The Tempest. Of particular note are Briggs’ claims that Shakespeare “drew straight from his native folklore” to portray small and benevolent fairies, in contrast to the more malevolent beings usually featured in romances (45).

Calderwood, James. “A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Anamorphism and Theseus’ Dream.” Shakespeare Quarterly 42.4 (1991): 409-30. JSTOR. Web. 25 Feb. 2013.

This essay provides an in-depth examination of the effect of double-casting the same actor as Theseus and Oberon, a decision originally made in Peter Brook’s influential 1970 production, which has subsequently become incredibly popular and had an enormous impact on scholarship surrounding the play (410). Calderwood suggests that the double-casting works to translate a technique from the visual arts called anamorphism—by which a painter creates an image that appears differently when viewed from different angles—for the theatre. The effect thereby helps to explain Theseus’ sudden change of heart with regards to the upholding of Athenian law at the end of the play; if Oberon is seen as an alternate representation of Theseus, then we can view his conflict and reconciliation with Titania as representative of Theseus’ struggle to enforce patriarchal authority over Hippolyta and Hermia. Viewed through this lens, the events taking place in the fairy world could be seen as an instructive dream which leads the Duke to take a softer approach to enforcement of the law and patriarchal authority.

Kott, Jan. “Titania and the Ass’s Head.” A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Critical Essays. Ed. Dorothea Kehler. New York: Garland Publishing, 1998. 105-25. Print.

This influential but highly controversial chapter originally published in Kott’s Shakespeare: Our Contemporary offers a darker interpretation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a violent, darkly erotic play. Regarding Puck as a kind of devil (107-10), the ass-headed Bottom as an ancient symbol of extreme virility (118), and the forest as a sinister place connected with danger and witchcraft (117-8), Kott paints us a new image of the play as Goya-inspired nightmare (120-3). Particularly interesting is the fact that Kott defends this polarizing view (See Maher for an account of stage productions responding to Kott’s vision.) with much of the same evidence used to support its opposite. For example, while Brigg’s earlier work cites the song Titania’s attendants use to ward off “spotted snakes… Thorny hedgehogs… Newts and blindworms” as dissociating the fairy world from such wicked familiars (46), Kott claims that this acknowledgement of the forest’s dangers actually creates a dark tone, connecting the forest and its inhabitants with witchcraft (117).

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Lander, Jesse. “Thinking with Fairies: A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the Problem of Belief.” Shakespeare Survey: A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Ed. Peter Holland. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2012. 42-52. Web. 26 Feb. 2013.

For those interested in Shakespeare’s fairies, Lander begins with a fascinating survey of scholarship on fairies in early modern English culture, ranging from the earlier work of Minor White Latham and Briggs—who suggested that belief in fairies, dating back to the Middle Ages, tends to be ascribed to others (an earlier time, old women, children, etc.)—to the more recent theories of Keith Thomas and Mary Ellen Lamb, who both suggest that “fairies” were used as common alibis by rural people in order to provide benign explanations for found money, illicit pregnancies, etc.—but that these alibis depended on unbelief (or definition of fairy belief as something held by others) to function. However, Lander rejects characterization of fairy belief as purely a utilitarian. Historicizing the Midsummer fairies within a Reformation context, he attempts to demonstrate that they are constructed specifically in opposition to the dichotomous view of the contemporary church, which attempted to force folklore to fit church doctrine by classifying all supernatural spirits as either demons or angels. While this is an interesting argument, the article is perhaps even more impressive and useful for the wide range of scholarship and historical evidence it includes on the subject of fairy belief.

Loomba, Ania. “The Great Indian Vanishing Trick – Colonialism, Property, and the Family in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” A Feminist Companion to Shakespeare. Ed. Dympna Callaghan. Oxford: Blackwell, 2001. 163-187. Print.

In this essay, Ania Loomba draws attention to an absence of postcolonial perspective in scholarship surrounding A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in spite of the presence—or perhaps rather absence—of the Indian boy who is the inspiration of Titania and Oberon’s quarrel. According to Loomba, most previous scholarship examines the relationship between the couple and the boy from a psychoanalytic and/or feminist perspective, an approach that is flawed because it assumes that the “traditional” nuclear family is a universal, rather than culturally specific phenomenon. Through discussion of early modern western views of eastern culture and family structure—along with their influence on Shakespeare’s characterization of Oberon and Titania, Loomba suggests that Midsummer’s fairy family works to assimilate different cultural traditions into one supposedly “normal,” culturally non-specific family structure.

Maher, Mary. “A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Nightmare or Gentle Snooze?” A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Critical Essays. Ed. Dorothea Kehler. New York: Garland Publishing, 1998. 428-50. Print.

Here, Maher provides a brief survey and criticism of the recent performance history of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, beginning with Peter Brook’s landmark 1970 production. Although the Brook play (along with Jan Kott’s controversial interpretation of the work) inspired a number of subsequent directors to attempt darker interpretations of Midsummer, Maher argues that truly successful productions—including Brook’s—have all remained faithful to Shakespeare’s conception of the play as a comedy. According to Maher, the playtext can support dark comedy and the frank acknowledgement of sex, but productions that fail to “collaborate” with the author by respecting his intended genre tend to fall flat or even confuse their audiences (446).

Marshall, David. “Exchanging Visions: Reading A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Modern Critical Interpretations: A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987. 87-115. Print.

Marshall begins this article by citing prominent eighteenth and nineteenth century critics of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, including Pepys and Hazlitt, who found the play disappointing in the theatre—largely due to the fact that there can be no physical representation of the inner fancies experienced in private reading. According to Marshall, this observation is particularly relevant to Midsummer because the play itself is concerned with the discrepancy between theatrical representation and reality, and more broadly with doubling and “disfiguring” in general. The changeling child, the mechanicals’ play-within-a-play, and the lovers’ fairy “dream” all highlight this theme of the “disfigurement” that occurs when attempts are made to replicate and communicate experience.

Montrose, Louis Adrian. “‘Shaping Fantasies’: Figurations of Gender and Power in Elizabethan Culture.” New Casebooks: A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Ed. Richard Dutton. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996. 101-38. Print.

This oft-cited work responds to the common conjecture that A Midsummer Night’s Dream was originally composed for a wedding at which Elizabeth I may have been in attendance with the claim that “the play’s court connection is dialectical rather than causal, ideological rather than occasional” (102). To Montrose, Elizabeth’s undeniable “cultural presence” is far more important to the play than her physical presence (103). In particular, anxiety about the rule of a female monarch over a patriarchal culture can be seen in the conquest of the Amazon Hippolyta, the attempts of Oberon to control his queen, and even the claims to Hermia’s loyalty and obedience made by Egeus, Theseus, Lysander, and Demetrius at the beginning of the play. In turn, representations of Elizabeth in works like Midsummer and Spenser’s The Faerie Queene helped to shape contemporary and modern conceptions of her (133).

Williams, Gary Jay. “The Wedding-play Myth and the Dream in Full Play.” Our Moonlight Revels: A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the Theatre. Ed. Thomas Postlewait. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1997. 1-37. Print.

Although the full book would be an instructive read for anyone with a special interest in the performance history of the play and its adaptations, from early operatic versions to postmodern interpretations, this chapter provides a reasonably thorough exploration of the play’s early history in the theatre. Most strikingly, the first half provides a well-researched and carefully articulated response to the “Wedding-play Myth” commonly accepted by earlier scholars. Williams provides a history of the myth, along with an account of the evidence commonly used to support it, before proceeding to refute the idea as largely unfounded and argue that it seems to have arisen from a desire to promote Shakespeare as a champion of British culture, including conventional love, marriage, and family. Williams nods to Montrose and other critics as offering more interesting and well-supported interpretations of A Midsummer Night’s Dream before proceeding to offer discussion of what we can know—or guess—about early performances of Midsummer if we cannot assume it was a wedding play.

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