'A Midsummer Nights Dream' in Context: Magic, Madness and Mayhem

'A Midsummer Nights Dream' in Context: Magic, Madness and Mayhem

by Keith Linley

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Everything you need to know about the cultural contexts of 'A Midsummer Night’s Dream'. Is this just a light-hearted romp or is Shakespeare trying to make serious points about courtship, love, marriage and human folly? This book provides detailed in-depth discussion of the various influences that an Elizabethan audience would have brought to interpreting the play. How did people think about the world, about God, about sin, about kings, about civilized conduct, about the magic and madness of love and attraction? Historical, literary, political, sociological backgrounds are explained within the biblical-moral matrices by which the play would have been judged. This book links real life in the late 1590s to the world on the stage. Discover the orthodox beliefs people held about religion. Meet the Devil, Sin and Death. Learn about the social hierarchy, gender relationships, court corruption, class tensions, the literary profile of the time, attitudes to comedy – and all the subversions, transgressions, and oppositions that made the play a hilarious farce but also an unsettling picture of a world so close to disaster.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783085576
Publisher: Anthem Press
Publication date: 11/21/2016
Series: Anthem Perspectives in Literature
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Poet, painter, teacher and academic, Keith Linley has lectured at university and given papers at conferences and book festivals on a range of literary subjects.

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A Midsummer Night's Dream in Context

Magic, Madness and Mayhem

By Keith Linley

Wimbledon Publishing Company

Copyright © 2016 Keith Linley
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78308-557-6



1.1 The Elizabethan Context: An Overview

In 1558 Elizabeth I assumed the crown of England. This inaugurated a period of relative peace, commercial and imperial expansion and growing national confidence, lasting until her death in 1603. It was also a period overshadowed by continuing religious frictions that were often extreme, sometimes violent. A Midsummer Night's Dream (hereafter called Dream), written in the mid-to-late 1590s, is therefore Elizabethan though its values reflect those of the late Middle Ages intermixed with those of the Renaissance.

In the wider European literary and political contexts, the period is the High Renaissance. Historians today call it Early Modern because many features of it are recognizably modern while being early in the evolution that shaped our world, but medieval views (particularly as regard conduct, the pervasiveness of religion and attitudes to sin and virtue) endured and coexisted with the Humanism of influential writers like Baldassare Castiglione and Erasmus that had originated on the continent.

Elizabeth, of the Tudor family, much loved, respected and feared, was a strong ruler, indeed strong enough to suppress the addressing of many problems which by her successor's time had become irresolvable. At times a sharply incisive intellect drove her political decisions. At others, caprice and temper made her a dangerous and unreliable force, all the more feared because of her cruelty and absolutism. She could be irritatingly resistant to making important decisions, but always knew where her best interests lay. The peace of her reign was constantly overshadowed by fears of Catholic outrage – against the queen herself or against society in general – or foreign invasion. Externally, the Spanish posed a considerable but diminishing threat to her tenure of the crown. Internally, Catholic opposition had been increased after the Pope declared Elizabeth a bastard and heretic and tacitly encouraged individual assassination attempts against her or state military action. Thisopposition had outwardly been blunted by the defeat of the Armada (1588), but the great bane of her reign was the claim of Mary Queen of Scots to have a stronger right to the throne of England than her cousin.

Associated with Mary's claim was the constant, very real fear of assassination plots for she provided a focus for discontented Catholics and a ready replacement on the throne. Perhaps with reluctance on Elizabeth's part, but certainly with relief, Mary was eventually executed in 1587 after implication in the Babington plot.

The Tudors (Henry VII, Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I, Elizabeth I) ruled from 1485 to 1603. Though dysfunctional and brutally absolutist, they successfully brought stability after the turmoil of the Wars of the Roses (though there were various short-lived rebellions against them). Questions of succession, the nature of rulers, the use and limits of monarchical power, the precariousness of power, the influence of court and the qualities of courtiers were matters that concerned people throughout the period. These matters hardly affect the mood of Dream, which is a largely festive mix of many sorts of comedy, but there are some issues around leadership and maintaining order. These emerge through the conduct of Oberon, through Theseus and his handling of Egeus's harsh patriarchy, and through Egeus's attitude to disposing of his daughter in marriage or to death. They are parodied in the problems Peter Quince has curbing Bottom's anarchic enthusiasms and Oberon's inept control of Puck's irrepressible mischievousness. The limited effects reason and balanced judgement can have on unrestrainable passions and the extent to which paternal rule may be allowed before it becomes unreasonable and cruel, were ongoing, much-debated problems of the time and would continue to be so into the next century. They are pushed to the margins of the play as the madcap happenings in the woods take over and the happy ending banishes all qualms.

Religion was a major conflict area, with Dissenters fighting for freedom from tight central control by the newly established English Church and Catholics trying to avoid the threats to their worship and, in some cases, actively seeking to topple the Protestant monarch. The religious fractures of the age have no place in the crazy jollity of this piece, but biblically originated religious-moral values do. Carnival, misrule, mistakes and entanglements drive the play, but the use of magic does raise the problem of the Anglican Church's view of superstition and its opposition to entrenched beliefs in a world of spirits, goblins and witches. The effects on society and individual morality of the wealth that the new capitalism and the expansion of trade were creating, were also beginning to worry Elizabethan writers. This new individualism and the accompanying greed it promoted have no place either in Dream, but in the clash between the wilful self-regard both of romance and paternal authoritarianism (evident in the clash between Hermia and her father) we can see the beginnings of the crumbling of old ways and the embryonic emergence of new individualism. But in its overall effect Dream is a holiday from all the pressing anxieties of the day. Almost – for there are some shadows.

Henry VIII's great achievement (and cause of trouble) was breaking with the Catholic Church of Rome and setting up the Church of England. This inaugurated a period of seismic change called the English Reformation. There was some limited alliance with the continental Protestant Reformation led by Martin Luther, but in many ways the English went their own way. Monasteries and convents were dissolved and the infrastructure of Catholicism banished. Altars were stripped of ornaments (leaving only the cross and flanking candles and sometimes not even these), churches emptied of statues and relics, and many murals whitewashed over, scratched out or defaced. New church services and prayers were conducted in English rather than Latin. New English translations of the Bible began to appear and there was a Book of Common Prayer to be used in all parish churches. Holy shrines and saints' days were done away with as idols and superstitions. The vicar was to be the only intermediary between a person and God. After the nine-day reign of Lady Jane Grey and a brief fiery and bloody return to Catholicism under Mary I (1553–8), Elizabeth succeeded and bedding in the new church continued. But the reforms provoked opposition which fuelled ongoing tensions. The freedom of an English church, supposedly stripped back to its simple original faith, encouraged the rise of more extreme reforming Protestant sects (not always to the liking of the infant established church). These groups were called Non-Conformists, Independents or Dissenters. They included Puritans, Calvinists and Presbyterians – all Protestant, but with doctrinal differences. Some eccentric and freaky sects grew up too – like the Anabaptists, the Brownists and the Family of Love. Religion and the tensions between different sects was a persistently present consideration at this time, but despite all the official changes, the essential beliefs in sin, virtue, salvation, the centrality of Christ and the ubiquity of the Devil (the idea that he was everywhere, looking to tempt man) were the same as they always had been, as were the beliefs that entry into Heaven was the reward of virtue, that punishment and possible perdition followed sin, and that the world was in decline and would shortly come to an end. In Dream Shakespeare hovers on the edge of a magic that sometimes has the frightening appearance of diabolic possession. The most extreme example is the transformation of Bottom's head. The funniest physical humour in the play is at the same time the most visually disturbing. Laughter saves the situation. The monstrous apparition that Bottom presents with his ass's head is diverted from diabolism by the down-to-earth, silly things he says and by the knowledge it will be reversed by Oberon when he is ready. But that understanding is suspended and delayed long enough to hint at the cruel potential that lurks underneath love and magic. We see a number of occasions where supposed love turns very hateful and shows its dark side.

The political discourse concerned with kingship is another persistent feature of the time. Elizabeth (adoringly nicknamed 'Gloriana') ruled from 1558, a time long enough to establish her as an icon, particularly as she headed up strong opposition (and victory) against the Spanish. But while external threats were repulsed, the period was one of unstoppable internal changes. Often feared by her ministers and courtiers, Elizabeth was much loved by the mass of her people. But her fearsome conduct repressed or slowed the discussion of many sociopolitical issues that needed addressing. In the economic-commercial world too inexorable changes were slowly emerging. These gradually altered the profile and mood of society. Religion, commerce, growing industrialization, an increase of manufacture, social relationships, kingship and rule were all changing. One unchanging feature of the period was the unceasing rise in prices, particularly of food. This brought an unceasing decline in the living standards of the poor, for wages did not rise. The rich and the rising middle class could cope with inflation, but the state of the poor deteriorated. Enclosure of arable land (very labour intensive) and its conversion to sheep farming (requiring less labour), raised unemployment among the 'lower orders' or 'baser sort' who constituted the largest proportion (between 80 and 85 per cent) of the 4–5 million population. Rising numbers of poor put greater burdens on poor relief in small, struggling rural communities, adding to the elite's fear of some monumental uprising of the disenchanted. Most of the population worked on the land, though increasing numbers were moving to the few existing cities. Later ages looked back on the Elizabethan era as a 'Golden Age' and talked of 'Merry England'. It was not, except for a small elite of rich, privileged aristocrats – the very group which forms the court characters in the play, and the same social group which probably watched the first performance. Also beginning to enjoy greater luxury and comfort were canny merchants (making fortunes from trading in exotic goods from the 'New Worlds' of Asia and the Americas) and those manufacturers making luxury goods for the aristocracy and the increasingly wealthy, acquisitive 'middling sort'. The emotional detachment of the governing classes from awareness of the state of the poor was a resonant feature of contemporary England. On Sunday 13 March 1603, 11 days before Elizabeth died, the Puritan divine Richard Stock delivered a Lent sermon at the Pulpit Cross in St Paul's churchyard, commenting,

I have lived here some few years, and every year I have heard an exceeding outcry of the poor that they are much oppressed of the rich of this city [...] All or most charges are raised [...] wherein the burden is more heavy upon a mechanical or handicraft poor man than upon an alderman.

Economic difficulties, poverty, social conflict, religious dissent and political tensions relating to the role and nature of monarchy and the role and authority of Parliament all remained unresolved. Charismatic, strong rulers like Elizabeth carry their followers with them, generating loyalty though often through an element of fear. Emerging problems are ignored or masked, because the ruler prevents them being discussed and councillors are afraid to raise them. Elizabeth, for example, passed several laws that made it treason to even discuss who might succeed her. This persistent refusal to face the succession problem, strengthened by legislation making discussion of the succession treasonable (the 1571 Treason Act and in 1581 another reinforcing it), began to look like a very human failure to acknowledge, address and resolve a serious matter for fear of contemplating her own mortality. A polity needs an active ruler, engaged with the key problems (the 'larger picture') but also with day-to-day petty matters and responding according to careful reason, not knee-jerk stop-gap reactions. States need rulers engaged physically and sympathetically with the people, not reclusive scholars shut in their libraries improving their mind (like Prospero in The Tempest), or reluctant to exercise laws that are punitive for fear of losing the people's love (like Duke Vincentio in Measure for Measure) or reacting with cruel autocratic anger when thwarted (King Lear and James I). Theseus does react immediately to try and arbitrate the problem between Egeus and his rebellious daughter, though he should have taken more time to consider how to defuse the situation. His failure to resolve the problem forces Lysander to set up the elopement plan. Had matters been smoothed over, however, there would be no play.

Monarchical commitment and a readiness to seek advice was part of the circumspection expected of a ruler. Elizabeth was notoriously difficult to advise. Favourites attempted it, but rarely got very far. William Cecil, Lord Burghley (the queen's secretary), was perhaps the only effective politician to approach the queen and influence her thinking. Strong, purposeful, central rule – in other words, caprice and diktat – were how Elizabeth administered her realm. Yet she did make regular progresses through the country and did meet her people. Theseus has done this (see 5.1.93–105) and shows a readiness to indulge his people as witness his attitude to the appallingly bad performance of 'Pyramus and Thisbe'. Though he is privately, in conversation with the courtly snobs, patronizingly disparaging of the acting, he accepts the play as an offering of loyalty:

For never anything can be amiss When simpleness and duty tender it. (5.1.82–3)

It is a form of hypocrisy, being smilingly pleasant to them but criticizing them behind their backs. It is courtesy to accept a gift with apparent gratitude. It is the thought of wanting to put on a play for their duke that counts, not the quality of the acting. Theseus's hypocrisy is part of the role of a public figure.

All the problems and developments of Elizabeth's reign would persist and worsen under her successor. Commerce and manufacture expanded rapidly (triggering a rise in the middle class that provided and serviced the new trades and crafts). Attitudes to religion, a desired freedom from church authority, began developing into resistance, and science began slowly to displace old superstitions and belief in magic. Like all times of transition, the Elizabethan period and the seventeenth century were exciting times for some but unsettling for most, profitable for a few but a struggle for the majority. As always, the rich found ways to get richer, and the poor got poorer. The courtly ranks and working men are evident in Dream, but with no sense of the tensions that were growing in the real Elizabethan polity. The lovers betray some upper-rank snobbery while the play-within-the-play is being performed, but the mechanicals express only love and loyalty to the Duke. Gradually the poor found men to speak up for them in the corridors of power, in the villages of England and the overcrowded streets of the cities, but it was a dangerous step to take to oppose, question or open debate with the queen. In 1559, very soon after her accession, Elizabeth had issued a proclamation forbidding plays to discuss 'matters of religion or of the governance of the estate of the Commonwealth'. Such concerns were the province of 'grave and discreet persons', 'men of authority, learning and wisdom', not to be aired before or by the general public.

The public rituals of monarchy are of their nature theatrical and therefore artificial and false, but the day-to-day running of a state is founded in the dullness of bureaucratic minutiae. The trick is to know where the make-believe ends and reality begins. Elizabeth certainly had the reputation of being a good public relations person. She could be dogmatic, autocratic and occasionally physically violent at court, but was friendly and personable in meeting her people. More Egeus in her orthodox dictatorial manner she could nevertheless play the Duke's more easy-going sympathetic style.

Her reign was still much overshadowed by the past. The Virgin Queen, married to her state, supportive of Anglican religion, was assailed by political and religious problems. Numerous plots to assassinate her troubled her reign. Catholic opposition to her and to her church was a constant threat undercutting the growing confidence of a people beginning to define itself by its separateness from and differentness to the Catholic continent. Theseus has none of these difficulties. They are outside the scope of the play. It is holiday time in Athens, and a royal wedding is to be celebrated.


Excerpted from A Midsummer Night's Dream in Context by Keith Linley. Copyright © 2016 Keith Linley. Excerpted by permission of Wimbledon Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Introduction; About this book – What is a context?; Part I. The Inherited Past; Prologue: The setting; i. The Historical Context; ii . The Elizabethan World Order: From Divinity To Dust; iii. Sin, Death and the Prince of Darkness; iv. The Seven Cardinal Virtues; v. Kingship; vi. Patriarchy, Family Authority and Gender relationships; vii. Man in His Place; viii. Images of Disorder: The Religious Context Unsettling Questions; Part II. The Elizabethan Present; ix. The Context of Comedy; x. Theseus and the Setting; xi. Puck’s Permutations: The Context of Love; xii. ‘Sweet Moon’: The Context of Magic; xiii. Literary Context; xiv. Playing Parts; xv. Transgressions and Translations; Bibliography

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‘A splendid, lucid and engaging work; the key to its success is the scholarly way we are drawn into the world which produced the Dream. Linley’s style adds to the reader’s experience: vibrant, lively and lit with real enthusiasm for his subject.’ Wendy Ellis, OCR A Level English Literature Team Leader

‘This witty and scholarly companion will easily engage a range of readers, especially those wishing to gain an insight into the historical attitudes and the social and political systems that surrounded the creation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.’ Jill Leese, English Teacher, OCR Team Leader

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