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A Speculative Political Allegory in A Midsummer Night's Dream Maurice Hunt Every so often commentators on Shakespeare's A MidsummerNight's Dream quote Bottom's judgment on his own "most rare vision" of the Fairy Queen—"Man is but an ass if he go about to expound this dream" (4.1.203-4)—with tongue-in-cheek reference to their own interpretive efforts.1 Given thefrequencywithwhich Bottom'swords have been invoked for this purpose, one can be excused for believing that the utterance has lost most of its value as a beforehand deflector of criticism against the commentator's argument. Yet if ever a commentator on A Dream risked appearing an ass to his or her reader, it would be the interpreter presumptuous enough to offer a reading ofa topical political allegory in the comedy. That, however, is precisely what I intend to do in this essay. I have in my title termed the political allegory I shall unfold not only "a" political allegory in A Midsummer Night's Dream (thus admitting that another one might appear as or more viable), but also that it is a "speculative" allegory. I realize nevertheless that, unless an authorhas supplied a statementofallegorical intention akin to Edmund Spenser's letter to Sir Walter Ralegh concerning The Faerie Queene, all unfolded literary allegories, political or otherwise, are speculative. Still, my use ofthe word in my title and from time to time in my argument may in some readers' minds make me appear less an ass in my expounding of Shakespeare's Dream. David Bevington in the late 1960s identified the largest obstacle to explicating a political allegory critical of Queen Elizabeth in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Citing Edith Rickert's "lock-picking type" of allegorical reading of the play (a 1920s interpretation about which I shall have something to say later), Bevington rejects it with a simple, 423 424Comparative Drama shrewd observation: "Shakespeare's supposed concealment of the allegory [of Titania/Elizabeth] grossly in love with [Bottom/James VI of Scotland] will not serve, for if Elizabeth with her mastery of decipherment could not read the message it would fail ofits purpose. The record seems clear that the play did not offend."2 Setting aside for the moment the question ofthe plausibility ofRickert's equation ofBottom and the Scottish king, I wantto question the assumptions underlying Bevington's judgment. He assumes that ifa discernible allegory critical ofElizabeth exists in Shakespeare's comedy, it would have offended her; and if it offended her, a written record of the offense taken would have necessarily survived. While Bevington's first assumption is certainly plausible, his second is debatable. It is likely that Elizabeth did not prosecute every author of a literary allusion to her rule that she suspected or knew was critical of it. If the allusion was notably oblique or cryptic, political prudence may have occasionally dictated her silence. The queen may have realized that crying out against every suspected critical allusion or allegory, when its author could defend himself by interpreting it according to a set ofliteral, harmless meanings, put her at risk ofappearing to her subjects overly touchy, insecure in her monarchy. No record exists of her censure of Spenser for critically depicting in The Faerie Queene her treatment of Ralegh in the allegory of Belphoebe and Timias's relationship. More importantíy, Shakespeare possibly may have encrypted an allegory in A Midsummer Night's Dream not designed for Elizabeth's instruction , but for the amusing reinforcement ofthe political opinions of one or more earls and their coterie with influence over the playwright. Granted the danger entailed by such a hypothetical enterprise, Shakespeare might have been inclined to make the allegory especially dark, meant chieflyto be decoded and appreciated by a disaffected nobleman —who may have partly or wholly suggested it—and his "in-theknow " friends. Such an assumption is every bit as plausible as the belief that, if Shakespeare incorporated an allegory in A Midsummer Night's Dream, it was intended primarily for Queen Elizabeth's eyes and ears. Critics have judged A Midsummer Night's Dream the most Lylyesque of Shakespeare's comedies.3 Veiled political allegories in- Maurice Hunt425 form...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 423-453
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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