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MINISTRY OF HIGHER AND SECONDARY SPECIALIZED EDUCATION
OF THE REPUBLIC OF UZBEKISTAN
GULISTAN STATE UNIVERSITY
The English and Literature department
Sufieva Zamira’s qualification work on speciality 5220100, English philology on theme:The Theme: W. Shakespeare’s comedy “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”
Supervisor: Tojiev Kh.
1.1. General aims and purposes of the qualification work
2.1. So me words about William Shakespeare and his play “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”
3.1. Critical estimation of the play.
II Main Part.
1.2. Chapter 1. Compositional Structure of the play and its scene-by-scene analysis.
1.1.2. The idea and composition of the play
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Ñïåöèàëüíûé áàíê ãîòîâûõ óñïåøíî ñäàííûõ äèïëîìíûõ ðàáîò ïðåäëàãàåò âàì ñêà÷àòü ëþáûå ðàáîòû ïî íåîáõîäèìîé âàì òåìå. Êà÷åñòâåííîå íàïèñàíèå äèïëîìíûõ ðàáîò ïî èíäèâèäóàëüíûì òðåáîâàíèÿì â Èðêóòñêå è â äðóãèõ ãîðîäàõ ÐÔ.
2.1.2. The introductory significance of the first act
3.1.2. Depicting of opposition and controversy of humans standing
4.1.2. Theme of love and its interpretation in the third act
5.1.2. The approaching of climax
6.1.2. The Post-climax of the comedy
2.2. Chapter 2. The brilliant majesty of the Shakespearean language.
1.2.2. The language of William Shakespeare
2.2.2. Verse forms and prose dialogues of he play
3.2.2. Rhetoric, patterning and word play examples
3.2. Chapter 3. The analysis of the main themes and characters.
1.3.1. Order and disorder
1.3.2. The young lovers
1.3. The results and conclusions of investigation
2.3. So me words about William Shakespeare and his comedy “ A Midsummer Night’s Dream”
1.1. The theme of my qualification work sounds as following: “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” This qualification work can be characterized by the following:
The actuality of this work caused by several important points. We seem to say that Shakespeare always remains actual for us because his works, even written three centuries ago his immortal poems, tragedies, chronicles and comedies tell about the modern things and phenomena which are happen to be in our lives, such as humans’ qualities, the problems of war and peace, love, revenge, etc. And our work becomes much more actual because of the reason that this year we remembered the 1390th anniversary passed after his death so the significance of our work can be proved by the following reasons:
a) William Shakespeare for the British literature is of the same value as Pushkin for the Russians, Navoi for the Uzbeks, Abai for the Kazachs, Balzac for the French, etc.
b) “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is one of the latest plays of Shakespeare which was written not long before the author’s death. That is why this comedy can demonstrate us the way of mental thinking of the late Shakespeare.
c) Though having written about the ancient Greek life, this comedy reflects the real state of affairs happened in Anglia of the period of the 16th century.
d) The book also worth studying for its brilliant language, cast of the personages, ideas and dialogues within the scenes.
Having based upon the actuality of the theme we are able to formulate the general goals of our qualification work.
a) To study, analyze, and sum up the play from the modern viewpoints.
b) To analyze the major scenes in the play and to show their significance for the plot.
c) To prove the idea of modernity in Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”.
d) To mention and compare between themselves the critical opinions concerning to the play.
If we say about the new information used within our work we may note that the work studies the problem from the modern positions and analyzes the modern trends appeared in this subject for the last ten years. Mainly, the newality is concluded in a wide collecting of internet materials dealing with the play. The practical significance of the work can be concluded in the following items:
a) The work could serve as a good source of materials for additional reading by students at schools, colleges and lyceums.
b) The problem of difficult reading of Shakespeare’s language could be a little bit easier to understand, since our qualification work includes the chapter concerning the question mentioned.
c) Those who would like to possess a perfect knowledge of English will find our work useful and practical.
d) Our qualification work is our little gift to memory of the outstanding English writer.
Having said about the scholars who dealt with the same theme earlier we may notion T. Shcepkina-Kupernik and A. Lozinsky, who made a great input to the popularization of the great English in our country, A. Anikst, who prepared the first “Russian Follio” of Shakespeare’s works, J. Coleridge, Dr. Jonson, Alfred Bates and many others.
If we say about the methods of scientific approaches used in our work we can mention the method of general analysis was used.
The newality of the work is concluded in including the modern interpretations of the play.
The general structure of our qualification work looks as follows:
The work is composed onto three major parts: introduction, main part and conclusion. Each part has its subdivision onto the specific thematically items. There are three points in the introductory part: the first item tells about the general characteristics of the work, the second paragraph gives us so me words about the author of the play and the history of his work “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, while the third part of introduction analyzes the critical works dedicated to the immortal comedy of William Shakespeare.. The main part of our qualification work consists of four chapters which, in their turn, are subdivided into several thematically paragraphs. The first chapter of the main part discusses the compositional structure of the comedy, its plot and main idea. Here we also gave the particular attention to the description and further analysis of the most meaningful scenes in each act of the play. The second chapter thoroughly takes into consideration the peculiar features of Shakespeare’s language. In this chapter we tried to make our conclusions to the points of verse and prose correspondence, rhethoric, patterning and wordplay talent of the “Avon Bard”. The third chapter takes into consideration the main themes touched upon the play, and their correspondence to the described epoch from the one side, and their actuality in the 21st century from the other. The last chapter of the main part observes the characters of their play and their interrelations in respect to the society, mental and age status. In conclusion to our work we gave our ideas got in the result of our investigation and appreciated the future perspectives of the latter. At the very end of our qualification work we supplied our work with the bibliography list and the internet materials.
2.1. William Shakespeare, born in 1594, is one of the greatest writers in literature. He dies in 1616 after completing many sonnets and plays. One of which is “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” They say that this play is the most purely romantic of Shakespeare’s comedies. The themes of the play are dreams and reality, love and magic. This extraordinary play is a play-with-in-a-play, which master writers only write successfully. Shakespeare proves here to be a master writer. Critics find it a task to explain the intricateness of the play, audiences find it very pleasing to read and watch. “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is a comedy combining elements of love, fairies, magic, and dreams.
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is more or less contemporary with Romeo and Juliet, and dates from the mid 1590s. In it, Shakespeare is painstaking in his attention to details of language (as in the early Love’s Labors Lost), but the play also shows the maturity of his best later work in its stagecraft. It is one of a group of plays known sometimes as festive comedies – the others being “As You Like It and Twelfth Night’s”. The plays are associated with festive seasons and traditional celebrations. “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is more democratic than many of Shakespeare’s plays – rulers, nobles, workmen and spirits all dominate the drama at different points. As a term to describe a category (kind) of play, tragedy (which means “goat song” in classical Greek!) originates in Athens in ancient times. Aristotle (a philosopher and scientist, but no playwright) describes rules or principles for the drama which tragedians should follow. These rules have proved helpful as a working description, but should not be seen as absolute: Shakespeare, in practice, ignores them more or less. Comedy is a term applied to the humorous plays of Greek (e. g. Aristophanes) and later Roman (e. g. Terence) dramatists. For Shakespeare, a comedy is a play with a happy ending – it may or may not be comical in the modern sense of being humorous. In trying to arrange Shakespeare’s work into categories (as for publication in book form) editors have produced a third category, of histories. More recently critics have noted that Shakespeare’s latest plays do not fit any of these categories easily. Thus we have problem plays (or tragicomedies) in Measure for Measure and All’s Well that Ends Well and pastoral plays or romances in Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest. We should know that these labels were not consistently or even commonly applied in Shakespeare’s time. Plays classed as tragedies (such as Macbeth) may have a clearly historical subject. Some of our “histories” (such as Richard II and Richard III) were advertised as tragedies at the time of their performance. Shakespeare wrote plays to be seen in a complete performance which would, for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, last about two and a half hours. The play would be performed by daylight (between about two and four o’clock) in the purpose-built open air theatres, or with artificial light (lanterns and candles) in private houses of wealthy patrons (The Tempest may well have been originally written for private performance: many of the special effects work best indoors and under artificial light; both Hamlet and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” show plays-within-the-play which are performed indoors, at Night’s). The plays were not written to be read or studied and (hand-written) copies of the text were originally made only for the use of the performers. It is important to remember this when you study the play as a text (with extensive editorial comment) on which you will be examined. Shakespeare’s company was the most successful of its day, and his plays filled the theatres. Many (most?) of the audience in a public performance would lack formal education and be technically illiterate (this does not mean that they were unintelligent). But these were people for whom the spoken word was of greater value than is the case today: they would be more attentive, more sensitive in listening to patterns of verse and rhyme, and aware of imagery (word pictures).
The intervals between Shakespeare’s “scenes” represent changes in time or place, but not of scenery, which would be minimal or non-existent. Basic stage furniture would serve a variety of purposes, but stage properties and costume would be more elaborate and suggestive. A range of gestures and movements with conventional connotations of meaning was used, but we are not sure today how these were performed.
3.2 Critical opinions on the play
“I am convinced,” says Coleridge, “that Shakespeare availed himself of the title of this play in his own mind, and worked upon it as a dream throughout.” The poet, in fact, says so in express words:
If we shadows have offended,
Think but this (and all is mended),
That you have but slumber’s here,
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend.
But to understand this dream–to have all its gay and soft and harmonious colors impressed upon the vision, to hear all the golden cadences of its poesy, to feel the perfect congruity of all its parts, and thus to receive it as a truth, we must not suppose that it will enter the mind amidst the lethargic slumbers of the imagination. We must receive it
As youthful poets dream
On summer eves by haunted stream.
No one need expect that the beautiful influences of this drama can be truly felt when he is under the subjection of literal and prosaic parts of our nature; or, if he habitually refuses to believe that there are higher and purer regions of thought than are supplied by the physical realities of the world. If so, he will have a false standard by which to judge of this, and of all other high poetry–such a standard as that of the acute and learned critic, Dr. Johnson, who lived in a prosaic age, and fostered in this particular the ignorance by which he was surrounded. He cannot himself appreciate the merits of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”: “Wild and fantastical as this play is, all the parts in their various modes are well written, and give the kind of pleasure which the author designed. Fairies, in his time, were much in fashion; common tradition made them familiar, and Spenser’s poem had made them great.” And thus old Pepys, with his honest hatred of poetry: “To the King’s theatre, where we saw “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, which I had never seen before, nor shall ever again, for it is the most insipid, ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life.” Hallam accounts “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” poetical more than dramatic; “yet rather so, because the indescribable profusion of imaginative poetry in this play overpowers our senses, till we can hardly observe anything else, than from any deficiency of dramatic excellence. For, in reality, the structure of the fable, consisting as it does of three, if not four, actions, very distinct in their subjects and personages, yet wrought into each other without effort or confusion, displays the skill, or rather instinctive felicity, of Shakespeare, as much as in any play he has written.”
The Main Part.
1.1.2 The idea and composition of the play
In order to understand a play, we have to work harder than did the Elizabethan or Jacobean audience. To see a play entire (in the theatre or on film), without interruption apart for the interval, may be needed for us to appreciate Shakespeare’s strong sense of narrative drive, and to see how the text is not the play but a (loose) blueprint for performance. On the other hand, study of text and editors’ notes may be necessary for us to appreciate some of the attitudes the contemporary audience brought into the theatre. Such notes may explain images and highlight patterns or structures which otherwise we might not “hear”. They may explain semantic change (changes of meaning) in words or phrases used by the playwright to convey important ideas to his audience.
In watching Shakespeare in performance we are not likely ever to enjoy the instant pleasure of experiencing a work of art (like a feature film or soap-opera or first-person novel) which uses conventions and a range of cultural references which we at once understand. What is amazing is that so much is still accessible, and that by adapting the delivery of lines, and giving some visual clues, performers can make the plays work today.
The division of plays into five acts is more apparent to the dramatist (to whom it gives an idea of how the play’s narrative structure will appear in performance) than to the audience (though modern audiences often know act and scene numbers). For the student (you), the numbering of acts and scenes is of enormous importance in identifying a given point in the narrative. When quoting a passage, always give act and scene number, while line numbers are helpful, too.
This play is a comedy. Shakespeare first informs the audience of the (very serious) problems of the young lovers, and of the fairy king and queen, counter pointed by the less serious (to us) problems of the mechanicals in presenting their “play”. By bringing the different groups of characters together in the wood, the author is able to show how the characters become more confused, before Puck, at the end of Act 3 separates the young lovers, the antidote to the love-in-idleness juice is given to Lysander, and in 4.1 Titania is also “cured” before the lovers are found by Theseus, and Bottom wakes with a hazy recollection of his “dream” (which may be no less articulate than the lovers’ attempts to recall what has happened in the wood).
Most of Act 5 is superfluous to the main plot, but indispensable as comic comment on the potential for tragedy in the love of passionate young couples. Act 5 is not just an epilogue, however: the action of the three principal fairies in blessing the newly-weds, and the children to be conceived is a necessary conclusion to the misunderstandings which have gone before. Here, as in Theseus’ kindly advice to Hermia in 1.1 (“Know of your youth, examine well your blood…”), in Titania’s long exposition of the results of her quarrel with Oberon (2.1) and in the joy with which the fairies “rock the ground whereon these sleepers be” (4.1), we see the play’s real and serious concern with fertility in the natural world, and in the world of men and their rulers, a concern which the Elizabethan audience would feel very strongly.
2.1.2 The introductory significance of the first act
In the beginning of the play a number of important relationships are established, and much narrative information is given. But we see some of the themes of the play examined, and there is interest in the action and language; for these reasons the scene could be chosen by examiners. The scene can be divided into a number of episodes:
- Theseus’ and Hippolyta’s preparations for marriage;
- Egeus’ complaint and Hermia’s defence before Theseus;
- the dialogue of the two lovers and Lysander’s plan for escape;
- their disclosure of the plan to Helena;
- Helena's soliloquy about love.
It will be seen that the scene is marked by various exits and entrances, so that particular groupings can be contrived. At other points, as when Theseus speaks to Hermia, others remain on stage, but are at best witnesses of something more intimate.
As the play is concerned with depicting conflict in love, in several relationships, we meet here two of the four principal pairs or groups:
- Theseus and Hippolyta: They have been at odds but are now reconciled, and their maturity contrasts with the passion of youth;
- the four young lovers who are to have such strange experiences in the wood.
When we next meet Demetrius and Helena (2.1) and Lysander and Hermia (2.2) we need little explanation to know where they are and why. The wood is briefly mentioned here as a most pleasant place by day, and imagined (209 ff.) as equally pleasant by Night’s: we, and the lovers, are unprepared for the danger and activity we will later see in this wood.
Shakespeare opens with a very formal, ceremonial procession, marked by the dignity, balance and stateliness of speech of the ruler and his consort; this is almost at once disturbed by the angry tirade of Egeus and the barbed exchanges of the young men. Between these, we find an intimate exchange which contrasts with the public quality of the procession and Egeus’ complaint. Here Theseus tries a very direct and honest appeal to Hermia’s judgement, keeping his authority as a means of last resort, and playing for time, though Hermia’s outspokenness almost frustrates this. We are struck by Hermia’s boldness (allowing for her sex, her youth and Theseus’ status) which Shakespeare renders more plausible by her own apology for the “power” which emboldens her. We are also struck by Theseus’ reluctance to command, his readiness to reason; while this brief exchange goes on, the others on stage are peripheral: the whole stage area could be used to show the opposition between the rivals, as Egeus commands each to “stand forth”. Theseus and Hippolyta probably occupy a central, raised position, even perhaps sitting on chairs (to represent thrones). For the exchange with Hermia, Theseus will come forward, perhaps leading her by the hand, so that their conversation is shared with the audience. Theseus’ gravity and diplomacy are in sharp contrast to the heated words which follow. In order that tempers may cool before he probes the seriousness of Demetrius’ new-found love for Hermia and dropping of Helena, Theseus leads away the angry father and his favorite. In her words to her lover, we again see Hermia in an intimate situation, but her forceful yet dignified answers to the duke are here replaced by a less restrained manner. She and Lysander speak in tones which would be comic if not delivered with such force. The arrival of Helena does not curtail this: she, too, speaks with passion and seems to lack a sense of proportion. There is some variety (but there will be more anon) in the verse form here. To achieve a mood of seriousness in the opening, the playwright uses blank verse. (Blank verse accounts for most of the text in most of Shakespeare’s plays, but is used much more sparingly in this play). This is sustained until Helena’s arrival, after which the characters speak in rhyming couplets. These are naturally more suited to comic moods and to the rapid imparting of narrative information. A number of other features should be noted. Left alone on stage, Lysander and Hermia speak in an over-wrought manner, marked by such phrases as “How now, my love” or “Ay me” (verbal sighs, almost) and the stichomythia (verbal fencing) of the six alternately-spoken lines beginning with “O” and “Or”, leading to the famous comment about “the course of true love”. This technique, with the further embellishment of rhyme, is used again when Hermia and Helena speak (194 ff.) of Demetrius. Helena’s soliloquy is notable for the repeated reference to “Cupid” (“a child”, “as boys…the boy”). She claims that love is blind, and yet seems herself “blind” to her own mistakes: she fawns on Demetrius, when she should play hard to get, and now intends to help him – for the brief benefit of sharing his company – to prevent the escape of her rival in his affections. But the most striking image in the scene, and the most touching, is that chosen by Theseus and echoed by Hermia, in lines 76 to 79, in which the theme of maternity (“the rose distilled”) is contrasted with the noble sacrifice of perpetual virginity, the “rose” which “withering on the virgin thorn/Grows, lives and dies in single blessedness”. To which the retort comes: “So will I grow, so live, so die”, rather than yield to Demetrius’ claim.
3.1.2 The opposition and controversy of human standings as the major theme of the second act
The short scene (1.2) in which we meet the “mechanicals” (workmen) has prepared us for the notion that the lovers will not be alone in the woods. In fact, they do not meet the workmen there (but in Theseus’ house in Act 5). Both lovers and mechanicals will encounter the fairies, and it is they whom we see here for the first time. In the play’s second act, we see how Lysander’s and Hermia’s attempt to solve their problems (coupled with Helena’s attempt to ingratiate herself with Demetrius, and Oberon’s actions – in his own behalf and Helena’s) leads to greater confusion, which will reach a climax in 3.2.
The scene divides effectively into two parts:
- in the first the quarrel between Oberon and Titania is presented,
- in the second, Oberon witnesses Helena’s rejection by Demetrius, and resolves to help her.
We can further divide the scene into episodes, as follows: Puck’s descriptions (of Oberon’s and Titania’s quarrel and of himself); Oberon’s confrontation with Titania, leading to his plan to take the Indian changeling from her; Demetrius’ pursuit of the lovers, and his flight from Helena; Oberon’s descriptions (of Titania’s bower and how he and Puck are to use the magical flower juice). In this scene, the language so effectively supports the action that these must be considered together. The fairy, like all of Titania’s attendants, uses short rhyming lines (spoken here, sung elsewhere) and Puck replies in rhyming couplets. This is his normal form of speech (whether in pentameters or tetrameters; the latter is more markedly rhythmic and suited to the casting of spells, though note the more musical and varied rhyme used at the end of 3.2). Puck’s speech is lively and indicates his sense of the ridiculous. It is well that the less serious passage in which he describes his pranks comes after the account of Oberon’s and Titania’s quarrel. This allows a sharper contrast from the levity of “a merrier hour” to the seriousness of “Ill met by moonlight”. (It is only with the couplets which mark Helena’s and Demetrius’ exits that rhyme is resumed.) Here the blank verse has a dignity in keeping with the status of the disputants, and with the effects of their dispute. The scornfulness of the opening exchanges resembles that of the rivals in 1.1, but the rivalry is of another kind: Titania, as Oberon’s consort, perhaps should (and ultimately will) give way, but she is a powerful spirit, certainly Oberon’s match in verbal argument; indeed, here she has the better of the exchanges, and it is Oberon’s cunning and Puck’s stealth which bring about the eventual reconciliation. The rather frenetic opening exchanges give way to fairly lengthy passages of description: of the alteration of the weather, caused by the fairies’ quarrel, and of the history of the child Oberon seeks. The lack of direct action may be partly offset by the very picturesque quality of the language, while in the first passage, the Elizabethan audience would doubtless be most concerned about the loss of fertility in field and fold: town dwellers would well imagine (and some may have experienced) what happens when the supply of food from the country is short. Some gesture and/or mimicry of the “votaress” may be provided by Titania; in any case, static positions on stage in this episode could be used to show the opposition of Oberon and Titania. Oberon’s intimacy with his confidant, Puck, allows another long description of what could not possibly be depicted on stage (how Cupid’s bolt missed its target and hit the Love-in-Idleness), after which Puck leaves to bring the magic flower to his master. The brief soliloquy explains to what use the flower will be put, thereby preparing us for Puck’s inspired elaboration on Oberon’s original plan. More important, in a way, are the three brief words: “I am invisible”. From now on either Oberon or Puck or both will be on stage for long periods of action: unseen and unheard (save when Puck mimics the young men) by the mortals they watch, they are seen and heard by the audience, whom they take into their confidence. Oberon’s tic as the unseen protector of men is as important as his solution of his own domestic problems. What he sees is this: Helena fawns on Demetrius, who spurns her. His conduct may not surprise a modern audience but is not at all gallant, in one of his social class: admittedly, he is sorely provoked, and in a situation where (he thinks) there is no third party to judge him. Desperate to rid himself of Helena, he speaks of the opportunity she has given him to ravish her; doubtless accompanying the words with menacing gestures suggestive of the deed. Helena’s response shows she has no fear of this; perhaps her actions indicate a readiness for Demetrius to ravish her, for he at once declares that he will run from her (Helena’s comments on Apollo and Daphne showing how silly this reversal of must appear). The whole of the interlude between Demetrius and Helena, considered as speech alone, is perfectly clear, but rather dull. It is obvious that it must be animated in some way, as by the actions of threatened violence, of pursuit and retreat, as well as by Oberon’s silent watching. Oberon signals his intention to punish Demetrius, and orders Puck to affect this, but this information is subordinated to the set-piece description of Titania’s bower. From a narrative point of view, this tells us where Titania is when we see her (within a few lines of this). As Shakespeare writes for a theatre in which the stage and properties are simple, the fey, magical atmosphere of the bower can only be established by such means as this word-picture, followed by Titania’s speech and the fairies’ lullaby in the next scene.
The scene 2 follows without interruption of time it seems, though we have moved to the part of the wood which Oberon has just described, as we know from Titania’s being there. The juice of the love-in-idleness is administered by Oberon: he suggests that Titania will be woken by some wild beast, but does not foresee the arrival of the mechanicals in 3.1. When they arrive, and perform so near to Titania, the audience may well guess what Puck will do. It may not at once occur to us when Oberon tells Puck that he will “know the man” i. e. Demetrius “by the Athenian garments he hath on” that Lysander is somewhere in the wood and answers the description, but when Puck finds Lysander and Hermia sleeping apart, we see that Puck makes an honest mistake. Lysander’s instant infatuation with Helena will be matched by that of Demetrius, to whom Oberon will give the magic juice in 3.2 leading to the confusion which Puck partly foresees (3.2, line 118). Lysander’s protestation of loyalty to Hermia is about to be belied. We do not blame Lysander for the suddenness of what occurs, but in a more general sense such promises, especially when made by young people, seem very rash: who knows what may happen in future? This is a relatively brief scene. A short interlude in which Titania is sung to sleep, allowing Oberon to give her the flower-juice (she sleeps on, he exits) leads to the arrival of the young lovers, who are lost, and lie down to sleep, allowing Puck to make his mistake; Helena, failing to catch Demetrius, sees Lysander and wakes him, with the predictable comic result, and he leaves with Helena (she has not seen Hermia, who wakes alone, having dreamt of a serpent). Whereas the previous scene, though marked by plenty of action, has space for much vivid description and poetic variety, this scene is more economical and swift-paced with lots of dramatic business done. The lullaby is beautiful and delicate but this brief interlude rapidly gives Oberon his opportunity; he tells us in a few lines what he is doing (we should remember, but if we do not, then the action alone may not be obvious) and at once leaves the stage to the lovers; there is no time even to change the scene, so Titania must remain on the stage. (She is woken neither by the young nobles, nor by the mechanicals; this is not improbable: Bottom wakes her because he sings so loudly, to keep his spirits up.) Although the lovers exchange some pleasantries, they lie down to sleep without any more delay than is inevitably caused by Lysander’s mild attempt to share Hermia’s sleeping-place; the appearances, first of Puck, who gives the flower-juice to Lysander, then of Demetrius, who almost at once runs off, then of Helena mark, if anything an acceleration in the already rapid pacing of the scene. This is in keeping with the swift movement through the wood of Oberon and Puck (“Through the forest have I gone”) and the breathless pursuit of Demetrius by Helena. When she declares “I am out of breath”, the audience shares her sense of the need to rest awhile. While she is doing this she notices Lysander (but does not think to enquire after Hermia; Helena is, after all, an accessory to the lovers’ plan!) Lysander’s speech to Helena (“And run through fire I will for thy sweet sake…”) is gloriously extravagant (it has a delightful counterpart in Demetrius’ words to Helena on waking in 3.2). The humour depends upon Lysander’s being wholly earnest, genuinely repelled by the thought of Hermia, and at once trying to rationalize his new love. The scene has great linguistic variety: the brief blank verse instruction of Titania to her fairies is followed by the delicate rhyme of the lullaby, which is, of course, sung. The sentinel fairy’s couplet is in the same meter (tetrameter) used by Oberon and shortly after by Puck. After an opening alternately-rhymed quatrain from Lysander, he and Hermia speak in couplets, as do Demetrius and Helena; and this metre, save for Puck’s brief speech, and are sustained for the rest of the scene. There is other evidence of verbal patterning: the fairies in the lullaby order snakes, hedgehogs and other unwelcome creatures to “come not near our Fairy Queen”; Oberon tells her to wake when some animal (he gives a list) is near, and Helena later likens herself to one of the more fearful woodland creatures on Oberon’s list – “ugly as a bear”. The verbal fencing we have seen earlier from Hermia and Lysander appears again: here Lysander uses his wit at once to suggest he is innocent of any improper intent and yet also to speak seductively. (His readiness to admit he is lost may have this ulterior motive.) In the previous scene Demetrius tries to bluff Helena with threatened seduction but she calls his bluff; here Lysander probably half intends to attempt seduction but Hermia rebukes him gently. He engages in word-games with the words “one” (lines 40, 41), “heart” (46,47) and “bosoms” (48, 49). Hermia cuts through this very effectively with “Lysander riddles very prettily”. She observes how linguistic virtuosity is used to attempt seduction. By telling him she knows what he is trying to do, she obliges him to stop! When Lysander addresses Helena in such excessive terms, the point Hermia has made is beautifully illustrated: that language may be used “prettily” but without meaning or honesty. This is shown in Lysander’s repetition of the words used minutes earlier –“bosom” and “heart” – in one line (104). The repeated use of the word “reason” (114-121) also suggests one of the themes of the play. We will hear more of “reason and love” anon. Note that while Lysander’s words, taken at face value, or applied by a mature man to a rational choice of partner (Theseus, perhaps?) might be persuasive, and while, as a matter of plain fact “reason” might well show Helena to be worthier than Hermia (though not on the evidence we have so far seen) in this case we know that Lysander’s comments are wholly free of reason. This is not to say that his earlier choice of Hermia is any more reasonable. In fact, the truly reasonable man will recognize (as Theseus does in 5.1, line 4 on, and as Bottom with unusual prescience states more succinctly in 3.1, 141-2) that love is a part of man’s experience which is never subject to reason. Finally, note how Hermia, on waking, returns to the motif of the dangerous or vile animal, in her case by dreaming of the suitably treacherous serpent.
4.1.2 Theme of love and its interpretation in the third act
We know from the short Act 1, scene 2 that the workmen have planned to tritium their play of Pyramus and Thisbe in the wood. Conveniently they come to the place just vacated by Hermia, where Titania still lies asleep. (The workmen hope that their play will be performed for Theseus, but we learn from 5.1, that there are many rival attractions: theirs will be chosen because of its amusing (contradictory) title and Philostrate’s harsh comments.)Puck, at first amused by the crudity of the acting, sees how to perfect Oberon’s plan for Titania. Titania’s instant infatuation with Bottom parallels that of Lysander (in the last scene) and Demetrius (in the next) with Helena. Oberon tells Puck (in 4.1) that Titania has readily given up the changeling boy to him. The sight of his queen’s doting on “this hateful fool” awakens a sense of tenderness in Oberon, leading to a renewal of their love, while Bottom’s strange experience leads to his puzzled soliloquy and his seeming-miraculous return to his fellows in 4.2. Pyramus and Thisbe, as performed by the mechanicals in 5.1, is a perfect commentary on how “the course of true love” has run, hitherto, for the young lovers. Structure is a fairly simple scene structurally: the workmen’s rehearsal ends when Puck gives Bottom the ass’s head; Bottom’s efforts to keep his spirits up wake Titania, who declares her love for the bemused Bottom and commands her fairies to minister to him. There is much to admire here, but especially
- the contrast between the grossness and clumsy speech of Bottom and the elegance, beauty and majesty of Titania,
- and the questions raised by Pyramus and Thisbe as to what constitutes a good play.
At first the scene is rather static: the workmen honestly try to solve their own “theatrical problems”; although Bottom is overbearing at times, his essential good nature and his friends’ respect mean that the “players” (in contrast with the four young lovers and the fairy rulers) work harmoniously, though the result of their labors is fatuous. The acting of Pyramus and Thisbe requires movement on (and off) the stage. The “hawthorn brake” could well be off the real stage (so, ironically, the supposed “tiring house” of the workmen could be provided by the real tiring house in the theatre) as the ass’s head must be placed on Bottom off stage, between lines 86 and 102 (see stage directions).
Quince’s comments indicate how the play is being performed:
“This be, stand forth…he goes but to see a noise that he heard, and is to come again…you must not speak that yet…Pyramus, enter». Puck’s “I’ll follow you…” speech is apparently not heard by Bottom, otherwise “Why do they run away?” makes no sense. The speech is evidently to inform the audience and invites mimicry, both in sound and movement, of the animals Puck names. Titania’s promise to make Bottom move “like an airy spirit” is not likely to prove true (as Oberon’s and her own comments in 4.1 shows). The regal, graceful movement of Titania and the delicacy of her fairies contrast with the robustness and “mortal grossness” of Bottom. Bottom is soon at ease in his strange situation, and speaks to Titania and the fairies with the same familiarity he shows to Theseus in 5.1. For different reasons neither ruler takes offence, but Shakespeare’s audience would feel a frisson of danger at the seeming impertinence. The proper (appropriate) attitude to someone of Titania’s or Theseus’ status is awed reverence of the kind the duke describes in 5.1, 93-105. Only a fool would fail to see this. When the fool wears an ass’s head, the impertinence seems greater. Here are some reasons why this will amuse the audience:
- The ass’s head is a visible symbol, and so, theatrically effective;
- “Ass” and “ass-head” are both used as synonyms of stupidity in the 16th century;
- the ass is obstinate and (thought) clumsy and ugly;
- it is a beast of burden, suggestive of Bottom’s “mechanical” (menial) status;
- the pronunciation of the word allows a pun on “are”, suggested by Bottom’s name. (He is called “Bottom”, as he is a weaver; “weaver’s bottom” like “housemaid’s knee” was a well-known medical condition. It is a kind of stichomythic strain injury – isocheimal bursitis in Latin);
- and Oberon has intended that Titania should love a beast.
The rude everyday speech of the workmen, embellished by Bottom’s and Quince’s errors, is to be contrasted with the stilted (unnatural) attempts at eloquence in Pyramus and Thisbe (compounded by mispronunciation) and with the very real eloquence of Titania. The informality of the workmen’s language is shown in their normally speaking in prose, with commonplaces such as “by’r lakin”, “not a whit”, “well”, “nay” and “ay”. Bottom also contributes “more better” and “saying thus, or to the same defect” (for “effect”) while Quince manages “disfigure” (for “figure”) and “to see a noise”. The simple folk-song crudely sung by Bottom is in sharp contrast to the delicate lullaby which has lulled Titania to sleep. Her reaction “What angel wakes me…?” and “Mine ear is much enamoured of thy note” is comically incongruous. There is further comic contrast between Titania’s verse, rhymed after her first waking speech, and Bottom’s prose: the one is eloquent, stately and (in any other context) dignified; the other homely and humble. We fear that Bottom will commit some gross breach of etiquette, but he is saved by Titania’s infatuation. Titania’s power is also shown in the ceremonial order of the fairies’ responses to her (160) and Bottom (172). In contrast with Lysander’s implausible claim to love Helena according to reason, Bottom notes with unusual perception that “reason and love keep little company together nowadays”, as if his present case were but an extreme illustration of a general truth, with which the audience concurs. His suggestion (that “honest neighbours” should “make them friends”) may also hint at the activities of Theseus and Oberon in trying to resolve the problems of those made unreasonable by love. Bottom, because he is uneducated, is prone to errors in speech, especially when trying to impress. But as this and the “Bottom’s dream” speech (in 4.1) show, he is capable of real intelligence, which may account for the regard in which his friends hold him. Finally note the contrast between the fey delicacy of the fairies’ names and the errands they are to perform, and the practical, homely comments of Bottom who thinks of the medical use of the cobweb and the culinary merits of peas and mustard.
Act 3, scene 2 This is the longest scene in the play; indeed it is longer than any of the play’s other acts. The sport Puck unintentionally causes – but greatly enjoys – reaches a climax, which might prove fatal but for his intervention; at the end of the scene he tells the audience that “all shall be well”, and this leads naturally to the reconciliation of the rivals in the next act, and the celebration of the threefold nuptials in Act 5. This is such a long scene that the structure in episodes can be hard to follow; in fact, it is not very complex if one notes that almost half of the scene is taken up with one extended episode (as long as the whole performance, in Act 5, of Pyramus and Thisbe).
- Puck explains to Oberon what he has done;
- seeing Demetrius and Hermia (where and how has she found him?) Puck learns of his error;
- he is to fetch Helena (and, therefore, Lysander, too) while the flower juice is given (by Oberon – there is no stage direction, but he tells us what he is doing) to Demetrius, who wakes at the sound of Helena’s voice and declares his love;
- the confusion is completed by the return of Hermia (it is dark, but she has heard Lysander’s voice);
- when the arguments threaten to turn to physical violence, Puck, commanded by Oberon, uses his skills in mimicry to separate the four, though eventually leading each to a sleeping place near the others. He puts in Lysander’s eyes the antidote (given him by Oberon) to the flower juice, and leaves the lovers sleeping.
The central episode here is perhaps the most amusing part of the play, but the humour is of a wholly different kind from that provided by the mechanicals. The workmen are obviously comic because of their class, their speech and their notions of acting. By contrast, the four lovers are characters of some status and dignity, whose situation in itself is very far from amusing. In the first scene the lovers are amusing in their tendency to sensationalize their predicament, to claim for themselves a tragic grandeur. Here, however, we are entertained by the plight of each character, both because we know so much more than he or she does, and because we see, and the lovers do not, how and why their own attempts to understand their predicament are utterly mistaken. Lysander recalls that he loved Hermia but is now repelled by her, and can only see his former love as an error of judgement. Demetrius has had the same experience, but is able to revert to his even earlier claim to Helena’s love. Neither man can understand why Helena disbelieves his protestations. It seems that each believes the other, however: having been bitter rivals for Hermia’s hand, they now bring the same rivalry to the pursuit of Helena. Helena loves Demetrius still, but assumes that his and Lysander’s courtship of her is a cruel elaboration of Demetrius’ earlier rejection; the men, though enemies, must hate her so much that they have agreed to offer ironic praise. Hermia’s outrage Helena takes to be part of the game; “she is one of this confederacy”. Hermia is genuinely puzzled by Lysander’s sudden change of heart, but believes Helena to be at fault. An ambiguous insult (“puppet”; Helena means “counterfeit” but Hermia thinks she refers to her size) gives Hermia a reason for Lysander’s inconstancy. The scene requires energy and much action in the performance: the two men are fawning on Helena, while in part struggling with each other; yet they must keep breaking off from this to defend Helena from Hermia. Helena is trying to hold off the men, and escape Hermia’s attacks. Hermia wants to assault Helena but is restrained by the men. All the while Oberon and Puck are watching, invisible to the mortals. Eventually the desire to settle their rivalry causes the men to leave the women alone, whereupon Helena runs away from Hermia, and Puck is able to intervene. Without this, the scene could have gone on for ever, but Shakespeare has allowed time to exploit fully its comic potential. It is essential, in the acting, that the performers do not exhibit self-consciousness or any sense of irony about their ridiculous situation. The men believe as they do because they are drugged; Helena’s response is quite a rational one; Hermia’s less so, but she can see no other, more simple, explanation. In any case, all of them are passionate people, whose motives for being in the wood are not conducive to calm or reason; they may be tired, they are in an unfamiliar place (this is not the wood as described in 1.1) and as much in the dark metaphorically as literally. Heated and excitable behavior is exactly what one would expect, and Puck has seen it coming. Before the men go off to fight, some violence will be threatened in gesture. As each tries to find the other, he may strike at shadows. We know they are to use swords, as Puck, in Demetrius’ voice, calls out (402) that he is “drawn and ready”. Most of the scene is rhymed verse, but in mid-speech Helena (195) switches to blank verse. As with the fairies in 2.1, this indicates a greater seriousness in the four lovers’ dispute. As the threatened violence descends into farcical pursuit it is Helena again (340) who picks up the rhyme. In general the lovers use pentameters arranged as couplets, but more elaborate patterns are used for particular purposes: Lysander and Helena speak in six-line stanzas when they come on stage; with the next two lines (a couplet) they form a sonnet in effect. The same six-line stanza is used by Helena and Hermia at the end of the scene, though for Hermia the metre is subtly varied (suggesting her exhaustion) with “Never so weary, never so in woe”. The fairies use both pentameter and tetrameter, and a more fluid verse form (lines varying in length) for Puck’s final speech. Although the men trade insults and go off to fight, the most sharp verbal exchanges are between Helena and Hermia. Helena speaks at length of their past friendship, accusing Hermia on treachery. Helena’s calling Hermia a “puppet” leads to a series of insults, mostly from the men, at the expense of Hermia’s stature and dark coloring. To this Hermia responds by calling Helena a “painted maypole”. Many of the best lines in the scene are Puck’s: the final speech and the earlier “Lord, what fools these mortals be” stand out. On Hermia’s exit (line 344) Puck’s and Oberon’s exchange is used to describe the passing of the Night’s, preparing us for the hunting in the next act. It also means that Puck must act “in haste” while the darkness he needs to mislead the men lasts. Two other parts of the dialogue are worthy of note. Demetrius’ “goddess, nymph, perfect, divine” and what follows (137ff.; quoted by Helena at 226-7) matches, if it does not surpass, Lysander’s “And run through fire I will for thy sweet sake” in 2.2. Helena’s “O weary Night’s, O long and tedious Night’s” could almost be taken from Pyramus and Thisbe (compare 5.1, 167-9). Helena (not the Night’s) is weary (the epithet is transferred) and it is her speech here which is tedious. In the audience’s view it is a good thing for the Night’s to end now, but it has been far from tedious!
5.1.2 Act4: the approaching of climax
In the Act 4, scene 1 what Puck promises in 3.2 (“Jack shall have Jill/Naught shall go ill”) comes to pass:
- The lovers’ relationships are amicably resolved, though there remains confusion about what has happened in the Night’s;
- Oberon and Titania are reconciled,
- and Bottom is restored to his normal condition.
Only two tasks are left for the last act: these are to celebrate the threefold wedding, and for the fairies to bless the three couples with fertility, and their children, about to be conceived, with good health. In most of Shakespeare’s comedies the comic resolution does not occur until the last act; here all hostilities are ended by the middle of the penultimate act. The scene easily breaks down into a series of short episodes which have a clear narrative sequence, corresponding to the characters who are speaking. With the exception of Puck, everyone whom we know to be in the wood is on stage (somewhere)!
- Bottom, led on stage by Titania and her train, continues to enjoy the treatment accorded him in 3.1;
- as he and Titania sleep, Puck arrives to be told by the watching Oberon that he now has the Indian boy;
- Titania, given the antidote (“Dian’s bud”) and woken, is repelled by the sight of Bottom (whom Puck is told to return to his proper appearance), but dances joyfully with Oberon;
- as they depart, Theseus, Hippolyta and Egeus appear, ready for the hunt;
- their finding and waking of the lovers leads to a confused account of their presence, but a very clear statement of Demetrius’ love for Helena, allowing Theseus to “overbear” Egeus’ choice of Demetrius, and favor the two couples with a joint wedding ceremony (an honor which should compensate Egeus for any loss of face);
- everyone else having at length left the wood, Bottom wakes, and has the stage to himself for his virtuoso prose soliloquy.
As noted above, this scene is remarkable for the number of characters on stage, and movements must take account of this. As it is now daylight, the sleepers will be seen by anyone who comes near them. When Bottom and Titania come on stage, they must, therefore avoid the lovers. Titania’s words describe her actions as does Bottom’s asking Mustardseed to help Cobweb scratch his face: Titania sees the “sleek smooth head” and “fair large ears” but loves Bottom because, rather than in spite, of these. There is continued humour in the incongruity here: offered fairy music, Bottom calls for “the tongs and the bones”; when Titania offers a dainty delicacy (“the squirrel’s hoard”), Bottom seeks huge quantities of animal fodder. When Titania comes to her senses, her dancing with Oberon is very important: their movement in time to the fairy music and rhythmic verse anticipates their activity in the next act. To “rock the ground” is what they have for long failed to do (with the dire results described by Titania in 2.1).Theseus and Hippolyta come on stage as the fairy king and queen leave it: this order is reversed in the next act; in each case we recognize a symmetry in the two pairs of rulers. The duke and his consort seek a vantage-point from which to watch the hunt. For obvious reasons the audience will not see the hounds, so a word-picture is required; once the lovers are found, the hunting can be “set aside”. Theseus evidently approaches the part of the stage where the young lovers (but not Bottom) sleep. “But soft, what nymphs are these?” may be ironic (he would recognize them if he looked) but he may not have a clear view. Egeus is able to identify his own daughter, and the others, and has to state the obvious in voicing his surprise at “their being here together” (the surprise is as much at their being “together”, as in the wood at all). When the lovers wake, their words are in striking contrast to their previous waking: in the Night’s both Lysander and Demetrius have woken instantly, filled with certain love for Helena; now both are hesitant, unsure what to say. We have not seen either of them exhibit such careful introspection nor attempt to be so conciliatory before. But Demetrius’ renewal of love for Helena solves Theseus’ problem. He cannot confirm Egeus’ choice because Demetrius cannot (unlike Hermia) be compelled to marry against his will. So Egeus is over-ruled and the Athenian law has not been compromised. Bottom, on waking, experiences equal confusion, if not greater. Where the young lovers have no idea why their affections have altered so radically (and back, in Lysander’s case), Bottom has had sight of the fairy world, but will find it difficult now to believe. He attempts to put his “dream” in words but is unequal to the task, though he hopes Peter Quince may be able to turn it into a ballad. If the action of the scene is marked by waking, the language is marked by references to dreaming. Oberon suggests (line 70) that Bottom and the lovers will think of “this Night’s’s accidents” as “the fierce vexation of a dream”, while Titania wakes believing she has had “visions”. Lysander, speaking to Theseus thinks he is “half sleep, half waking”, Hermia thinks she is seeing double (a faithless and a faithful Lysander?) and has already dreamed of Lysander’s watching a serpent eat her heart away. Demetrius suggests they are still dreaming, but sees he must be awake when he realizes that the other three have seen and heard the same things as himself. Bottom’s soliloquy repeats the word “dream” six times and also refers to a “vision”. He does not attempt to describe what he has seen, suggesting that only a “patched fool” (that is, a jester or “professional” Fool) would attempt it. (A Fool of this kind would have the learning and wit indeed to explain the dream.) Saint Paul’s comment on spiritual gifts is called in evidence, but as usual Bottom assigns sense-experiences, not to the organs which experience them, but to others. He and Quince confuse sight and sound elsewhere (Quince in 3.1, 90; Bottom in 5.1, 188-9). This idea of the events in the wood as a dream, is continued in the next act: Hippolyta argues that the common elements in what the lovers say indicate that something odd occurred. Later, Puck, in speaking the epilogue will argue that the play is the audience’s, as much as the performers’, dream.
6.1.2 The post-climax of the comedy
All loose ends of the plot have already been tied; what happens in the scene we already know, save for the selection of the workmen’s play, which is not surprising. The play is a celebration of marriage:
- the “tragical mirth” of Pyramus and Thisbe in its original story points to the dangers of passionate love, from which our lovers have been delivered;
- in its dialogue and performance, it shows that creating dramatic narrative is not for amateurs;
- but in its well-meaning presentation to the newly-weds it proves Theseus right in his claim that “…never any thing can be amiss/When simpleness and duty tender it”.
The presence of the mechanicals at the wedding feast reflects the connected or organic nature of hierarchical society, and identifies the good ruler with his loyal subjects. A far more serious celebration follows: the fairies, led by their king and queen and the inevitable Puck, bring to the bedchambers the fertility, and to the children, in due course, the good health which all those in the audience would wish to enjoy. This is remarkably simple, but is formally arranged:
- the discussion of the lovers’ “dreams” at the start of the scene mirrors Puck’s description of the audience’s slumbering “while these visions did appear”;
- the hilarious and good-natured entertainment at the wedding-feast gives way to a more serious, but equally joyful, blessing by the fairies;
- reversing the order in 4.1, Theseus’ exit is followed moments later by the entrance of the fairy king: day gives way to Night’s, earthly rule to that of the good spirits, as Theseus understands in urging retirement to bed, not because he is impatient, or overwhelmed with desire, but because: “’T is almost fairy time”.
The opening of the scene is quite intimate: Theseus speaks seriously to Hippolyta (he is not inhibited by the presence of so trusted a servant as Philostrate; a ruler of his standing would rarely be alone with another person). The episode is fairly static to allow the debate to be heard, but the arrival of the four young newly-weds brings Theseus to a consideration of the short-listed entertainments for his wedding-feast. He is given a written list of these, which he reads, evidently for the first-time, half aloud, half to himself. His interest in Pyramus and Thisbe alarms Philostrate, who tries to dissuade him. When this “play” is performed, we see exaggerated histrionic gestures, and such redundant devices as actors playing the wall, moonshine and the lion. These three introduce themselves and explain what they are doing (the wall also explains his exit from the stage). Bottom and Starveling both step out of character to address their audience directly. For other clues to the nature of the action we must look to the remarks of Theseus and his guests. After the bergomask dance, and the departure of the nobles, we see the far more skilful dancing of the fairies, by means of which they enact their magic. At last, the actor playing Puck steps half out of character to address the audience; to do this he will come to the front of the stage, and end by calling for applause. The set-piece discussion of imagination, especially of “the lunatic, the lover, and the poet” is the last in series of commentaries on reason and love which runs through the whole drama. The long speeches, in tetrameter couplets, of Oberon, Titania and Puck, perfectly fit their r”le here of beneficent and magical spirits. Throughout this play, Shakespeare has used enomous variety of verse forms and prose: almost always these perfectly fit their dramatic context, whether for carrying narrative, expressing argument, meditation on an idea, describing what we cannot see or casting a spell. We often laugh at characters, but we never laugh at the dramatist’s control of his medium. Lest we take this for granted, Pyramus and Thisbe serves as a corrective. We see here what happens when rhetorical devices and rhyme are used mechanically and without sensitivity. Quince’s garbling of the punctuation makes the Prologue less intelligibl;e but no less pompous and windy. We find weak rhymes (“Thisbe/secretly”; “sinister/whisper”), excessive use of “O” (167 ff., but we have caught the lovers doing this before, if to a less degree), crude stichomythia (191-200) and tongue-tying alliteration (“Quail, crush, conclude and quell” or “Come blade my breast imbrue”).Shakespeare shows clearly in the rest of the play how to avoid lines which the actor cannot speak, unless the character is knowingly playing with sound effects) and simple inaccuracy, especially where terms have been mixed up (“I see a voice”; “Sweet Moon, I thank thee for thy sunny beams”; “These lily lips,/This cherry nose,/These yellow cowslip cheeks”). The play is not so bad that the workmen cannot plausibly take pride in it. But the educated nobles can see its faults readily. Of course, we can see skill in its composition: Shakespeare has contrived the verse form, so that errors and crudities are pointed by the rhymes, and the whole has a rollicking metrical energy which exactly matches the gusto of the inexpert but enthusiastic actors. The male and female leads have lines which are meant to give scope for the actors’ great talent: there are fairly long speeches, with overwrought climaxes. We suppose that while Bottom is cast as Pyramus because his exaggerated delivery commands respect among the workmen, Flute is cast as Thisbe because he is the youngest man (his beard is only now beginning to grow).
Chapter 2. The brilliant majesty of Shakespearean language one the example of the comedy “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”
1.2.2 The language of Shakespeare
Although we can observe features of the play’s language on the page, it should be noted that the play was written (never published) by Shakespeare for theatrical performance, and that effects of language are meant to be heard, as by an attentive audience they would be. Moreover, few of these effects are merely decorative; most help interpret the action on stage. In discussing the play’s language, you should not merely list matters of interest, but should structure your comments according to categories or some other arrangement. The headings under which this section of commentary has been arranged may help.
By narrating events, Shakespeare is able to shorten the time directly represented on stage while providing the audience with necessary background information. Good examples of this would be Puck’s account to the fairy of his master’s quarrel with Titania, or Titania’s own account of how she came by the changeling child. Where a tale may be already known to most of the audience, the narration can be very brief, as in Theseus’s “I wooed thee with my sword/And won thy love, doing thee injury”. More immediate events not directly shown may also be narrated, as when Puck tells the audience he has gone through the forest “But Athenian found I none”, or when Oberon tells Puck how he has met Titania, “Seeking sweet favours for this hateful fool” (Bottom) and that she has given up the child. Description, often with an element of narration, is essential to this play.
Imagination is an important theme, and the playwright boldly initiates a debate about imagination in the latter part of the play. “The best in this kind are but shadows, and the worst are no worse if imagination amend them”, to which comes the retort that in watching Pyramus and Thisbe the “audience” must compensate for the defective imaginations of the “performers”. In the Dream, as elsewhere, Shakespeare depends upon, but successfully excites, the audience’s imagination. Things that cannot possibly be shown on stage are described vividly to us. These include:
- Oberon’s celebrated “bank whereon the wild thyme blows”
- Lysander’s and Hermia’s description to Helena, in 1.1, of the moonlight and the wood;
- Helena’s description in 3.2 of her “school-days’ friendship” with Hermia, with its repeated images of “union in partition”,
- and Puck’s description of Night’s terrors at the end of the play (“Now the hungry lion roars/And the wolf behowls the moon”) contrasted with the security of those in Theseus’s house (“…not a mouse/Shall disturb this hallow’d house”).
A sense of the fairies’ magical power and of exoticism is established in references to remote places (“the farthest steppe of India” or “the spiced Indian air”) or Puck’s ability to circle the earth in “forty minutes” (much less on stage). The wood, too, is exotic and ambiguous: it is beautiful but dangerous. The description of these things contrasts with the more homely and familiar elements: the native English flowers and herbs, and the folk traditions reflected in Puck’s account of his mischief. Often narration and description are mixed. This is true of the example cited above of Titania’s account of the “votaress” of her order, as well as of her account of the disruption in the natural world caused by her quarrel with Oberon. Oberon, in his account of the “fair vestal, throned by the west” also mixes narration with descriptive detail, as does Puck when he explains to his master how “Titania wak’d and straightway loved an ass”. The frequent references to the wood and the moon instruct us to keep thinking of what
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