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  • Why A Midsummer Night’s Dream?
  • Kenneth Burke (bio)

Lest you expect the wrong things of this talk, please let me say at the start that I shall not be speaking impressionistically. It is not my aim (indeed, it is not within my capacity) to give you, in my own words, on a lecture platform, the kind of experience that you can get somewhat by a sympathetic reading of the work we are to discuss, or still better, by seeing it expertly performed. Though we shall throughout be concerned with one work in particular, the discussion also involves considerations of critical method in general. Some may disagree with this very method. For them the best I can do is try to make it as cogent as possible so that, if anyone cares to raise objections afterwards, we can help make it more certain that the objections are to what I shall have actually said. Objections are all the more to be welcomed because, at least in one notable respect, I ran into some notions that I did not have when beginning my analysis.


In his book on Greek tragedy, Aristotle states that it is better to read such plays than to see them performed.1 This notion is probably due in part to the fact that Aristotle was so thoroughly a bookman, but also to the fact that, at that stage in the development of technology, many visual aspects of a performance must have been quite crude. Consider, for example, the tragedies which involve the appearance of a god in a machine, the deus ex machina. Doubtless the very awkwardness made it good fun to have such a figure in Aristophanic comedy, somewhat as with the farcical performance of Pyramus and Thisbe in A Midsummer Night's Dream. And though the traditional dance-steps in a tragedy may have had much to recommend them, the masks must have at least made impossible such mobility of bodily expression that [End Page 297] we take for granted as an important aspect of the actor's art. By the same token, among what he called the six qualitative parts of tragedy (plot, character, thought, diction, melody, and spectacle),2 he rated spectacle (opsis) lowest3 —whereas the high development of technology today readily allows for kinds of "spectacular" in which the visual show is the major source of the attraction. The fact that, except for pageantry, the Shakespearean theater also had meager resources as spectacle accounts for one major problem, particularly in the modern filming of a Shakespeare play. Where the playwright is trying to produce, by sheerly verbal means, the sense of a visual experience like dawn or dusk or moonlight (which can now readily be imitated by sheerly technical means but, in the original conditions of performance, were to be imagined in broad daylight), such lines tend to become redundant, since they are aiming to produce a kind of effect that is already being produced by other means. As early as 1816, there was a performance that, to Hazlitt's disgruntlement, stressed spectacle and incidental music, at the expense of the poetry.4 And the battle has been variously waged since then.

Over the years many things have been done with the play. Sometimes the text has been greatly cut, and music featured—Mendelssohn's, for instance—or folk tunes. There was even a performance that wholly eliminated the courtly figures, and was all buffoonery, by greatly expanding the role of Bottom. I shall work from the text as we have it, in the book—and shall not concern myself with directors' twists (as, for instance, having the same actor play the roles of Theseus and Oberon, or the same actress play Hippolyta and Titania). For regardless of the innovative effects that may be got by such resources, in the last analysis the roles themselves are quite distinct. And in particular I must lay great emphasis upon the standard distinction between the two queens.

How quickly things get set up. First there is Theseus saying "Now, fair Hippolyta, our nuptial hour / Draws on apace" (1.1.1–2).5 He would wed "With pomp, with triumph, and with revelling" (l...


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pp. 297-308
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