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The earliest editions of this drama are two quartos, both published in 1600, one by Thomas Fisher, the other by James Roberts, entitled, “ A Midsommer Nights dreame. As it hath beene sundry times publickely acted, by the Right honourable, the Lord Chamberlaine · his seruants. Written by William Shakespeare.” Fisher's impression was duly registered at Stationers' Hall; but no memorandum of Roberts's has ever been found : and from this circumstance, and the greater accuracy of its text, the former has usually been considered the authorized version. Yet, strange to say, the player editors of the first folio, when they reprinted the work twenty-three years afterwards, adopted the text of Roberts, and appear to have been unacquainted altogether with the more correct quarto of Fisher.
Malone, in his attempt to determine the chronological order in which these plays were written, assigns the composition of “A Midsummer Night's Dream” to 1594; and Titania's fine description of the unnatural succession of the seasons and the “progeny of evils,” which fairy discords had brought upon the “human mortals,” is singularly applicable to a state of things prevalent in England during the years 1593 and 1594. Strype (Annals, b. IV. p. 211) has printed an extract from one of Dr. J. King's “Lectures upon Jonas,' preached at York in 1594, in which that divine reminds his hearers of the various signs of God's wrath with which England was visited in 1593 and 1594; as storms, pestilence, dearth, and unseasonable weather. Of the last he
says, “Remember that the spring” (that year that the plague broke out)“ was very unkind, by means of the abundance of rains that fell ; our July hath been like to a February; our June even as an April ; so that the air must needs be corrupted.” Then, having spoken of the three successive years of scarcity, he adds—“ and see whether the Lord doth not threaten us much more, by sending such unseasonable weather and storms of rain among us; which, if we will observe, and compare it with that which is past, we may say, that the course of nature is very much inverted ; our years are turned upside down ; our summers are no summers : our harvests are no harvests : our seeds-times are no seeds-times.” The passage is quoted by Blakeway; and it certainly bears & striking resemblance to the picture drawn by the Fairy Queen, beginning, -
“Therefore the winds piping to us in vain," &c. But we are not disposed to attach much importance to these coincidences as settling the date of the play, and still less to the interpretation of the well-known lines,
“ The thrice three Muses mourning for the death
Of learning, late deceas'd in beggary,”– which Warton and Malone conceive to be an allusion either to Spenser's poem, “The Tears of the Muses on the Neglect and Contempt of Learning," or to the death of Spenser. The poem in question was first published in 1591, three years before the period fixed for the production of this piece, and the death of Spenser did not take place till 1599, five years after it. Mr. Knight conjectures, with more plausibility, that the allusion was to the erring but unfortunate Robert Greene, who died in 1592. Whatever uncertainty may attend these speculations, the internal evidence of the play proves at least that it was written in the full vigour of Shakespeare's youthful genius, and subsequent, there is every probability, to “ The Two Gentlemen of Verona," “ Love's Labour's Lost,” « The Comedy of Errors, ," “ The Taming of the Shrew,” and “Romeo and Juliet.”
The commentators have been even less successful in their attempts to discover the origin of “A Midsummer Night's Dream,” than in fixing the period of its production. Their persistence in assigning the ground-work of the fable to Chaucer's "Knight's Tale," is a remarkable instance of the docility with which succeeding writers will adopt, one after the other, an assertion that has really little or no foundation in fact. There is scarcely any resemblance whatever between Chaucer's tale and Shakespeare's play, beyond that of the scene in both being laid at the Court of Theseus. The Palamon, Arcite, and Emilie of the former are very different persons indeed from the Demetrius, Lysander, Helena, and Hermia, of the latter. Chaucer has made Duke Theseus a leading character in his story, and has ascribed the unearthly incidents to mythological personages, conformable to a legend which professes to narrate events that actually happened in Greece. Shakespeare, on the other hand, has merely adopted Theseus, whose exploits he was acquainted with through the pages of North’s Plutarch, as a well-known character of romance, in subordination to whom the rest of the dramatis personæ might fret their hour; and has employed for supernatural machinery those "airy nothings” familiar to the literature and traditions of various people and nearly all ages. There is little at all in common between the two stories except the name Theseus, the representative of which appears in Shakespeare simply as a prince who lived in times when the introduction of ethereal beings, such as Oberon, Titania, and Puck, was in accordance with tradition and romance.
Beyond one or two passing allusions, there is no attempt to individualize either the man or the country, and, but for these, Theseus might have been called by any other name, and have been lord of any other territory. There is another enunciation of the critics, which requires to be taken with considerable modification : we are told that the characters of the play are classical, while the accessories are Gothic; but the distinction implied is not perhaps so great as we have been led to believe. Godwin has called Theseus the “knight-errant ” of antiquity, from which it might be inferred that the knight-errant of the middle ages was a very different person to the romantic hero of ancient times: but, in truth, the two characters were almost identical, as the history of Theseus proves. What material difference, for example, is there between his victory over the Minotaur, and that of Guy, the renowned Earl of Warwick, over the Dun cow ? The combats with dragons and other ferocious monsters, the protection of the virtuous and the weak against the wicked and the strong, fluctuation of good and evil fortune, adventures with the fair sex, and engagements with supernatural enemies, these were the incidents of every story in which a warrior was made to figure as the hero of romance. Nor is there anything peculiarly Gothic in the imaginary population of the fairy-world. It is not improbable that many of our legends connected with this fabulous race were derived indirectly from Greece itself. It is impossible to read the Golden Ass of Apuleius, one of the few prose works of imagination which have been transmitted to us from ancient times, without being struck by the similarity of classic and Gothic literature in this department of romance. The Fawns, Satyrs, and Dryads of the Greeks were undoubtedly of a kindred origin with the woodland fairies of more recent times, and the intervention of an agency known as witchcraft is alike traceable in both ages.
There can be little doubt that Golding's translation of the story of Pyramus and Thisbe suggested the interlude by the hard-handed men of Athens, as North's Plutarch certainly furnished the characters of Theseus and his “ bouncing Amazon;" but that which constitutes the charm and essence of the play, the union of those gross materials with the delicate, benign, and sportive beings of fairy-land,“ lighter than the gossamer, and smaller than a cowslip's bell," was the pure creation of Shakespeare's own illimitable and delightful fancy.
THESEUS, Duke of Athens..
OBERON, king of the fairies.
Puck, or Robin GoODFELLOW, a fairy. Snug, the joiner.
fairies. Flute, the bellows-mender.
Мотн. Snout, the tinker.
MUSTARD-SEED. STARVELING, the tailor.
Other fairies attending the King and Queen. HIPPOLYTA, Queen of the AMAZONS, betrothed to Attendants upon THESEUS and HIPPOLYTA. THESEUS.
SCENE.--ATHENS, and an adjacent Wood.