« PreviousContinue »
precisely that explanation of the whole matter which we have been attempting to make out in detail:
'More strange than true: I never may believe
Such tricks hath strong imagination,
Now from this speech of Theseus we learn that the lovers had not only recounted to him and Hippolyta the quarrels which in the previous scenes had been represented before our eyes, but have also told him, as part of their story, all about the intervention of Oberon and Puck, which he calls antique fables and fairy toys,' which he can never believe. We had no previous intimation that these fairies had been seen by the lovers as well as by ourselves, nor had they any suspicion of having seen them during the time they were quarrelling. The confusion between the common and the marvellous, the real and the imaginary, and the transition from one to the other, are just what we experience in dreams. These fairies, says Theseus, are the creations of the imagination of the romantic youths and maidens, in their desire to find some joyful solution of their difficulties: and while his suggestion that in the night each bush is easily taken for a bear, seems to imply that Lysander and Demetrius were actually on foot during some part of the night, in random pursuit of each other, we are evidently to take the words as the matter-of-fact counterpart and interpretation of the high-flown language of the rivals themselves and their invisible opponent in the bushes, in the quarrelling scene.
But while we say that this is Shakespeare's own explanation, put into the mouth of Theseus, as well as confirmed by the general tenor of the Play, we must not overlook the objection which Shakespeare has also stated on the other side, through his spokeswoman Hippolyta. She replies to Theseus :—
'But all the story of the night told over,
That is to say, that it would seem to bring us beyond the verge of possibility to admit that such a dream, with the previous events and circumstances which it grew out of, and illustrated, should have been sufficient to cure the lovers of their cross-purposes, so that (as Puck says)
'Jack shall have Jill,
But we must not only admit this, but also assume that the dream, or series of dreams, was the same for all four lovers; and indeed for the party of clowns also. To which we may reply, that this is no more than that inevitable difference between an event in nature and a work of art, of which we have already said so much. We do not complain of a landscape of Claude, or Turner, that it is unreal, or untrue, because miles of solid mountain or moving sea, nay, the illimitable blue sky and the sun itself, are represented by some dabs of paint on a few feet of flat canvas. Besides, there is a certain mysterious element in dreams, of which the workings are not measurable by common sense: and so the speech of Hippolyta is required to complete the view of Theseus, which by itself would be too matter of fact. And with Shakespeare's wonted regard to appropriateness, it is a woman who supplies the requisite balance. Hippolyta, who is the dramatic counterpart of Theseus, shows in this, as in various traits throughout the Play, the characteristic difference of sex. She has a more lively sympathy with the exuberant imaginations of the lovers, and a feminine readiness to leave the matter matter as something strange and admirable,' such as could not be expected from the 'cool reason' of the man who has just pronounced it to be more strange than true.
If this be the right interpretation of this 'Midsummer Night's Dream,' it must be equally applicable to the history of Snug, Bottom, and the rest of their company. And so we shall find that it is. The clowns meet in the palace wood, a mile without the town, by moonlight,' to rehearse what they designate their most lamentable comedy.' When Bottom has spoken his speech, he goes into the hawthorn brake which Peter Quince, the manager, has appointed for their tiring-house. Then he re-enters at the prompter's summons; and the party of 'hempen homespuns,' whose propensity thus to turn players is the voucher for the activity of their imaginations, fancy that there is something monstrous in his appearance, as he emerges from the bushes, and among the moonlit shadows, at the moment when, with that half-belief in the reality of their
play which characterizes childish and half-educated minds, they were expecting that fearful wild fowl,' the lion, to rush out of the same bushes. They all run home; while Bottom, who believes that this is done (as he says) to make an ass of him,' resolves to stay there, to show that he is not afraid. He falls asleep, and by a process which we all know to be a natural one in dreams, those words of his 'to make an ass of me 'combine themselves with the image of the lion's head, in which Snug was to play his part; with the exclamations of Quince and his fellows the moment before; and with all the thoughts which the darkness, the wood, and the tale of Pyramus and Thisbe unite to conjure up. And thus is produced a result which is described correctly enough in his own words, when on waking next morning he says, 'I have had a most rare vision : I have had a dream past the wit of man to say what dream it was.' That he had been asleep all the time is farther marked by the fact (true to nature, like all Shakespeare's facts) that his first thought on waking connects itself with the real business on which he was engaged before he fell asleep :- When my cue comes, call me, and I will answer: my next is, Most fair Pyramus.' After this, his mind recurs to the dream. The moderate and matter-of-fact, if not very wise, manner in which Bottom's absence is discussed, and his arrival greeted, at Quince's house the next day, shows that neither they nor Bottom had any real deliberate belief that he had actually and visibly worn an ass's head during the past night.
In conclusion, and to meet any difficulties which do not seem yet answered, we will repeat what we said at the beginning, that the whole Play is 'A Midsummer Night's Dream,' and subject to the law of dreams for us spectators, as well as for the actors in it :
Think but this (and all is mended),
And so we hope, with Master Peter Quince,
that here is a
We turn to Shakespeare's other Fairy Play, The Tempest.' Though the elves as described by Prospero in his last call on them may seem to resemble in some respects those of 'Midsummer Night's Dream,' they are really quite different. The latter are the friendly though mischief-loving fairies of English household life, and play their pranks, at their own will,
on boys and girls and clowns not much wiser than themselves. But the former represent the elementary powers of nature, hateful like Caliban and Sycorax, or beautiful like Ariel and the sprites who obey his orders, but so without moral sense or sympathy, that even Ariel could only say that, if he were human, he should be moved by the affliction of the conscience-stricken king. They are mighty agents in the hand of the man who can control them by his will, weak masters though they be' of themselves; and they are his instruments to work out destinies of far greater moment than those of Helena and Hermia.
Some commentators, and doubtless many more readers, have noticed that although the Tempest' was neither the earliest nor the last of Shakespeare's Plays, it was by a happy, if perhaps unconscious, intuition that the editors of the First Folio put it at the head of their volume. It is a mimic, magic, tempest which we are to see: a tempest raised by Art, to work moral ends with actual men and women, and then to sink into a calm. And in such a storm and calm we have the very idea of a Play or Drama, the fitting specimen and frontispiece of the whole volume of Plays before us. Prospero, in like manner, we may say is Shakespeare. The man of poetic genius constantly has a feeling that he might be a man of action if he chose; if he did not, like Prospero, prefer to occupy himself wholly with study of the liberal arts,' and of volumes, prized above a dukedom.' His fellow-men think otherwise of his abilities, deeming him of temporal royalties incapable;' and presently he finds himself the object of, at best, the patronising pity of the practical men of the world, an exile in the island of Poesy and Faëry, where they leave him to his own devices. Such contrasts between the actual and the ideal must Shakespeare have realized in his own life, when he turned from his good business-like investments in capital messuages,' ' tenements,' and 'arable lands,' or his suit in the Borough Court of Stratford against Philip Rogers for the sum of thirty-five shillings and ten pence, due to the said William Shakespeare for corn delivered:'-when he turned from these to write his 'Hamlet,' his 'Lear,' or his Julius Cæsar.' Such contrasts in the life and experience of other great poets we sometimes get hints and glimpses of, either from themselves or from those who know them well enough to tell us what manner of men they really are or were; and so far is Prospero their type. This Prospero, then, though in one sense a banished man, and nothing better than the master of a full poor cell," in an island which to the vulgar eye seems desert, uninhabitable, and almost inaccessible,' is, in another sense, a
mightier prince and ruler than any, with a fairer, worthier kingdom. What a charming place the island must have been, if we take it as it was seen by those in whom the eye of poetry, romance, and love, was open: by old Gonzalo as well as by young Ferdinand; nay even by the monster Caliban, who has always a touch of poetry in him, in contrast to the dull materialism of the rest of the rabble rout, Stephano, Trinculo, and the Boatswain! For though Prospero laments that his pains humanely taken,' were 'all, all, quite lost' upon Caliban, the born devil' as he calls him, and that no human, moral life could be evoked in him, still Caliban's nature is that of the savage, which has more freshness in it, though it be in truth no less brutish and vicious, than that of the helots of civilization. But we were speaking of the island. Though there is no elaborate description of it, we have so many hints of its loveliness that they gradually work themselves into a distinct image before us. Even the city-bred courtier whose disparaging words we just now quoted, praises the subtle, tender, and delicate temperature of the air which breathes on them so sweetly.' The grass 'looks so lush and lusty, and so green,' that Gonzalo not only sees in it the token of a climate where there is everything advantageous to life,' but dreams rovanantically of creating an Utopia there. Or think of Caliban's—
I'll show thee every fertile inch o' the island:
I'll show thee the best springs: I'll pluck thee berries:
I prithee let me bring me thee where crabs grow;
Think of the land in which, as in their proper home, Prospero addresses the spirits of earth, air, and sea :
'Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes and groves,