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INTRODUCTION TO MIDSUMMER-NIGHTS DREAM. THIS drama is the most highly and exclusively imaginative
1 of all Shakespeare's works. It may be described as the quintessence of the poetry of fancy. To his more powerful Hamlet, Othello, or Lear, it stands in much the same relation as Milton's Comus or Lycidas stands to the Paradise Lost or Samson Agonistes. The flowers and sweets of poetry are scattered about in profusion, and colours and imagery the most brilliant, fantastic, and beautiful, grace almost every scene and incident. Human interest is not wanting, but it is subordinate to the fairy creations and movements. The title of the play at once diseloses its character-it is a dream, a midsummer-night's dream, when nature and fancy are alike most prolific and beautiful, and it presents a succession of visions such as might rise before a young poet in wild, dissimilar, incongruous action, yet all vivid, curious, and fascinating, and bound together, as it were, by celestial influence.
The studies of the poet in the composition of this play seem to have been the life of Theseus in North’s Plutarch, Golding's translation of Ovid, and the popular fairy mythology of his day, in which Oberon, Titania, and Puck or Robin Goodfellow were well-known personages. Oberon, 'the dwarf king of fairies,' is introduced into the popular romance of Huon de Bordeaux, translated by Lord Berners probably earlier than 1558. Golding's translation of the Metamorphoses appeared in 1567, and from this the poet had the tale of Pyramus and Thisbe. The characteristics of Puck, the “shrewd and meddling elf, were described in various tracts, one of which (The Mad Pranks and Merry Jests of Robin Goodfellow) has been reprinted by Mr Collier, and seems to have been known to Shakespeare. The heroic portion of the play was suggested by Plutarch. Theseus and Hippolyta take no part in the action, but they serve, as Schlegel has said, to form a splendid frame for the picture, and surround it with a stately pomp: 'the discourse of the hero and his amazon, as they course through the forest with their noisy hunting-train, works upon the imagination like the fresh breath of morning, before which the shades of night disappear. Steevens supposed that Shakespeare was also indebted to Chaucer's Knight's Tale, but, excepting that the names of Theseus, Hippolyta, and Philostrate are to be found in both tale and play, there is no resemblance. Indeed, all that the poet has derived from the sources we have enumerated, is so extremely slight as scarcely to make any appreciable deduction from the original merits of the drama. Shakespeare had arrived at the full measure of his creative strength and dramatic art, and had too absolute dominion over the realms of fancy to require on such ground foreign aid or subsidies. · The date of the play is usually assigned, though without any direct evidence, to the year 1594 or 1595. We know from the Palladis Tamia of Meres that it was in existence in 1598. In Titania's description of the evils brought about by fairy brawls and dissension, there is a striking enumeration of disasters :
The winds, piping to us in vain,
The folds stands empty in the drowned field.' Now, it is certain that a state of things similar to this was experienced in England in 1594. Stowe's Chronicle, Strype's Annals, and other works detail the storms, pestilence, and dearth that prevailed through that and part of the preceding year. There was literally no summer in 1594 ; people sat by the fire in July, fruits and cattle perished from the incessant rains and floods, and the corn rotted in the fields. So melancholy and fatal a season must have been fixed in the national memory, and it is not unlikely that Shakespeare meant to recall it in the description given by his Fairy Queen, as Addison, in the next century, in his famous simile of the angel in the storm, referred to the great tempest of 1703—
"Such as, of late, o'er pale Britannia pass’d.'. In poetry and rhetoric, as Macaulay has said, the particular has always the advantage of the general.
Another supposed temporary allusion in Midsummer-Night's Dream occurs in Act V. sc. I:
“The thrice three Muses mourning for the death
Of learning late deceas'd in beggary.' Warton made these lines apply to Spenser's Tears of the Muses, 1591 ; Malone, to the death of Spenser in January 1598-9 (in which case the lines must have been an after-insertion, for the play was produced before Spenser's death); and Mr Charles Knight conceived they referred to the death of Robert Greene, which took place in 1592. The last is the most plausible conjecture. The wretched dramatist was learned (he was an M.A. of Cambridge University), and he had died in beggary, maintained in his last illness by a poor shoemaker living in one of the lowest wards of London.
The tribute to Queen Elizabeth (Act II. sc. I) is also a contemporary allusion ; but though one of the most delicate and exquisitely poetical compliments ever paid to beauty or royalty, it proves nothing, of course, as to the precise date of the composition in which it appears. But with what a transport of pleasure must Elizabeth have first heard this transcendent eulogium, unapproached even by the muse of Spenser, and with what rapturous applause must it have been received by the loyal and courtly audience! So brief, so dazzling, it must have thrilled like the sudden flash of a meteor down the sky.
Two editions of this play were published in 1600,' as it had
been sundry times publicly acted by the Right Honourable the Lord Chamberlain his servants. One of these was imprinted' for Thomas Fisher, and the other for James Roberts. The former is the more correct impression, and seems to have been authorised; but, unfortunately, the editors of the folio of 1623 followed the copy of Roberts, repeating most of its misprints, but at the same time making a few corrections and variations, which they had apparently derived from another (perhaps manuscript) copy of the play.
“The Midsummer-Night's Dream is, I believe, altogether original in one of the most beautiful conceptions that ever visited the mind of a poet-the fairy machinery. A few before him had dealt in a vulgar and clumsy manner with popular superstitions ; but the sportive, beneficent, invisible population of the air and earth, long since established in the creed of childhood, and of those simple as children, had never for a moment been blended with “human mortals” among the personages of the drama. Lyly's Maid's Metamorphosis is probably later than this play of Shakespeare, and was not published till 1600. It is unnecessary to observe that the fairies of Spenser, as he has dealt with them, are wholly of a different race. The language of Midsummer-Night's Dream is equally novel with the machinery. It sparkles in perpetual brightness with all the hues of the rainbow; yet there is nothing overcharged or affectedly ornamented. Perhaps no play of Shakespeare has fewer blemishes, or is from beginning to end in so perfect keeping ; none in which so few lines could be erased, or so few expressions blamed. His own peculiar idiom, the dress of his mind, which began to be discernible in the Two Gentlemen of Verona, is more frequently manifested in the present play. The expression is seldom obscure, but it is never in poetry, and hardly in prose, the expression of other dramatists, and far less of the people. And here, without reviving the debated question of Shakespeare's learning, I must venture to think that he possessed rather more acquaintance with the Latin language than many believe. The