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actual human life, which, however hard to examine scientifically, are yet more or less capable of such handling, and are then found to have their proper, natural, sequences and laws. And these facts, these phenomena, Shakespeare. has apprehended and employed for the purposes of his art, with just the same faithfulness to nature as he does the graver facts of love, hate, or ambition. Only follow the clue he has put into our hands in his title, and then see whether it does not lead us over hill, over dale, through bush, through briar,' to as satisfactory a conclusion as that to which Puck, after all his pranks, leads his followers.
Let us exert the poet's power, and place ourselves at Athens. Not, however, the Athens of Horace, or of Grote, but the Athens of the medieval romances of Chaucer and his Knight's Tale.' The Athens which Shakespeare, following Chaucer, has here created for us, has cloisters in which the nun may be doomed by her father's will to spend her life in chanting faint hymns to our Lady Diana'; and woods where youths and maidens do observance to a morn of May,' and where, while they wander among beds of primroses and cowslips, they are more likely to meet with Oberon or Robin Goodfellow than with Pan, Apollo, or Daphne. A comparison of the opening lines of this Play and of the Knight's Tale' will make the resemblance very evident. Yet there is a contrast as well as a resemblance. Chaucer's story is all serious: he believes in its reality, and his personages are as grave and dignified as their classical prototypes. But Shakespeare's belief in them is not much greater than our own. They are very good stuff to make a Midsummer night's dream out of; but neither the heroic names and royal language of Theseus and Hippolyta, nor the sternness with which Theseus supports the severe authority of Hermia's father, awake in us any tragic emotion. We feel throughout-through the woes of Helena as well as those of Bottom—that (to borrow a phrase from the latter) the whole is 'a very good piece of work, and a merry,' be it never so · lamentable and cruel.'
Charles Lamb, though a devoted playgoer, said that no play was so unfit for the stage as this; and we have heard a man of taste and judgment who, after seeing it acted with all the accessories of modern ingenuity and theatrical magnificence, confirms Charles Lamb's opinion, with a melancholy regret that the play could never again be to him what it had been : so destructive is the best representation to the poetic illusions which rise before the reader's vision. How inevitable must the charm be broken when we see a great flesh-and-blood girl representing the fairy Queen whose courtiers are “the cowslips tall,' and whose guards
leave her for the third part of a minute' to kill cankers in the musk-rose buds,' or to war with rear-mice for their leathern wings,' or rob the humble bees and the butterflies of their several spoils Any outward, material, representation ofthese things must oppress us with a sense of intolerable shambut to him who beholds them with the mind's eye, not only do they all present themselves in an harmonious picture, but even Bottom, with his ass-head, in the midst of the tiny sprites who hop in his walks, and gambol in his eyes,' excites no more disturbing sense of the monstrous and improbable than such an appearance would do in an actual dream; and every one has experienced that in a dream the most incongruous or impossible combinations cause us no surprise. We are aware that this is not the experience of all playgoers. We speak for ourselves or those whạthink with
If we are asked whether Shakespeare did not himself mean that this, like the rest of his Plays, should be acted, we answer that the absence, in his day, of all the modern accessories of scenery, dresses, and machinery, made the acting of those days much more like reading in the study than is now the case. Those accessories do not increase, but destroy the illusion.
The opening scene introduces to us what we may call the waking personages of the Play: for we must consider that while the whole is a dream, and dreamy, in relation to us, it has its waking and its sleeping parts as regards the dramatis persone themselves. Theseus,the prince and soldier;Hippolytathequeen;andEgeus, with his doctrine of parental rights and filial duties, represent the sensible and practical in life—the people who sleep soundly, without dreaming when they go to bed. Thelovers, too,though they presently sleep and dream, are here to be seen in their waking state. Let us look at them, taking for granted that they are real people, with ordinary feelings, habits, and motives. Demetrius is at present courting Hermia, and with the sanction of old Egeus, her father, who peremptorily requires her to marry him, or else be put to death, according to the law which the sovereign himself admits he can only so far modify as to substitute for death a lifelong seclusion in a nunnery. Hermia refuses Demetrius, because she already loves, and is loved by, Lysander. Demetrius, on the other hand, was betrothed to Helena before he saw Hermia ; nor has he now a word to say in denial of the charge that, in this his recent abandonment of Helena, he had no other motive than that of base inconstancy.
Duke Theseus does not conceal his disapprobation of the fickleness of Demetrius and the paternal tyranny of Egeus, and takes them apart for some private schooling' which he has for them both. We need not be surprised if this schooling from
the lips of their sovereign should presently have some effect on the mind of the young man at least ; though we may expect that, if so, it will be gradual and indirect. For Duke Theseus is a constitutional ruler; and if he cannot persuade them to give up their legal rights, he will not 'extenuate the law of Athens, by an exercise of mere authority, even for a good object.
Then Lysander, too, is an ordinary sort of youth, whose whole language and acts are in accordance with ordinary human nature.
His love for Hermia is at first tender and respectful as well as ardent: but, like other youths, he has a speculative, generalising turn of mind, shown in his language about 'the course of true love, or of youth “not ripe to reason.' Having this speculative turn of mind, he must have been tempted ask himself sometimes whether he will be able to face the obstacles to his union with Hermia : whether reasons might not be adduced in favour of such conduct as that of his rival, whom, notwithstanding it, the world hardly thinks the less entitled to the character of a worthy gentleman:' and whether the tall and gentle Helena, whose wrongs have awakened in him the pity which is akin to love, might not after all suit him better than the little vixen Hermia; and Hermia, too, be better off by marrying Demetrius than by persisting in a disobedience to her father's will which would end, not in the wished-for union with himself, but-in the warning words of Theseus
*For aye to be in shady cloister mew'd,
Chanting faint hymns to the cold fruitless moon.' Such thoughts as these, if they came to him in daylight, he might reject as base temptations to desert his allegiance : but in his dreams by night they might present themselves as reasonable grounds of action-grounds for the things which, in his dreams, he was actually saying and doing.
So of Hermia. In the first scene she is full of hope and courage: but she, too, would feel the reaction presently, when the fatigue of her long walk and a night spent in the woods gave full scope for maidenly and filial remorse and fear of consequences. She is much too clever a girl, and too familiar with Helena, not to have already thought at times whether her poor friend's fate may not be her own too; and whether the example of that faithless Demetrius may not prove contagious, and the vows of Lysander himself find a place among those
that men have spoke, In number more than women ever broke.'
These very words, which in a gayer moment did but playfully express her confidence that her own lover was the exception to the general rule, would, in the hour of depression, serve equally well to utter thoughts of real alarm or despondency. If Hermia should fall asleep and dream in such a mood, these thoughts would take the form of realities of events wherein she was herself an actress.
Helena, again, if she should sleep, weary in mind and body, would not she dream of the like matters, in the form in which they were present to her waking thoughts? She is conscious that she is a lady, and must assert the rights of her sex, though she feels that she is a very timid girl. She is conscious that her betrothal to Demetrius gives her a right to avow her love for him, while her maidenly modesty checks her in the exercise of that right. She knows that through Athens she is thought as fair' as Hermia, yet, if Demetrius has ceased to think her so, may not the admiration of others be mere mockery? She loves Hermia as her old schoolfellow and friend, but must feel some natural bitterness and anger when she thinks of her as a rival. Such are her waking thoughts and feelings: if she should dream, will she not dream that all are in a league to mock her, the poor forsaken girl, whose love and persevering trust in the generosity at least of her faithless lover, ought never to have induced her to leave her home to wander in that wood ?
These people then-real, ordinary people, with real, ordinary thoughts and passions, though the thoughts and passions of the season of youth and youthful love—have lost their way, and fallen asleep, in a wood near Athens, on a midsummer night. The time and place indeed (as we have already pointed out) belong to the golden age of romance, in which intercourse with fairyland was possible for poets and for lovers even in their waking, and much more in their sleeping hours. When we have acquainted ourselves with the Athens of Chaucer's * Knight's Tale,' let us turn to the Flower and the Leaf' (which represents the thought and sentiment of Chaucer's time, though it may not be from his pen), and go with that gentlewoman who
rose three houres after twelve,
Long ere the brighté sun uprisen was,' and then we shall see how, in that day, one might get glimpses of the fairies on a summer night, and we shall have no difficulty in admitting that if we grant Shakespeare's postulates
of the time and place of bis Drama, they too have seen the fairies on that night.
Those four lovers then, with their minds and hearts under those various impressions and influences, have gone, on that midsummer night,
when Phæbe doth behold Her silver visage in the watery glass, Decking with liquid pearl the bladed grass,' –
into a wood associated in their minds with the observance of the morn of May,' with other love meetings, and with sweet counsels, often held on primrose beds: a wood which has banks where their youthful imaginations would readily recognize the tokens that there sleeps Titania some time of the night," and that with her haunt Oberon, and Puck, and the whole fairy court, with all their traditional quarrels and sports among themselves, and their helpful or mischievous pranks, played upon any human lovers they might fall in with. The lovers fall asleep in this wood, and their dreams-real, natural dreams enoughare what from the exigencies of the dramatic form are represented to us as actual occurrences. This, we repeat, is Shakespeare's own account of the matter. First, Oberon predicts that,
• When they next wake, all this derision
Shall seem a dream and fruitless vision, just because it was a dream and vision, and no more real than Oberon himself. And then the contrast between this night of fantastic dreams and the returning light of common day is. marked by the appearance of Theseus and his party, preparing to
hear the music of his hounds, uncoupled in the Western Valley.' Only let us listen to the sound of the hunting horns and the talk of Theseus and Hippolyta, and we feel at once the transition from sleep to waking.
Then the lovers are discovered asleep on the ground : and when the Duke bids the huntsmen wake them with their horns,' they rise and reply amazedly, half-sleep, half-waking: The impression upon all their minds is that of a dreamy puzzle in which everything seems double,' and of which they agree in accepting the explanation of Demetrius : “ It seems to me that yet we sleep, we dream.'
And in the opening scene of the next Act, when they have not only recounted and discussed their dreams, but have told over all the story of the night' to Theseus and Hippolyta, the practical mind of the Duke, whom (as we have said) we may call the representative of common sense throughout this play, gives