To what extent do you agree that although A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a Comedy, it also hints at the darker possibilities of human experience?
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a play that illuminates both the lighter and darker aspects of the human experience. One interpretation given by Glen Cengage is that the play is both “light, frothy and fun” as well as incorporating “dark hints of cruelty [and] compulsion”. In comic theory, the green world is a place in which social rules and conventions no longer apply therefore it acts as an escape.
The darker nature of humans can be found during the longest scene in the play when the characters are in love with the wrong people, Hermia’s rebellion and Puck’s soliloquy. As tragedy can be found in both the human and green world, many would argue that tragedy reoccurs throughout the play and that it could be a prominent tone in the play. However it could be argued that the play is a Comedy, as it is evident in the structure, despite the tragic undertones that are weaved through the play.
One aspect of the darker human experience is living in a male dominating society. One female character that is oppressed by male tyranny is Hermia. She has a “power” which has made her “bold” (1:2:59) enough to speak up against her father and plead on Lysander’s behalf. As said by Lisa Jardine “[A Renaissance woman’s] tongue is her only weapon”. Her disobedient and feisty character illustrates that she is an unconventional woman in Elizabethan times. She is able to voice her opinion and suffer the consequences, be it the “livery of a nun” or “death” (1:2:65-70). A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a play written in the Elizabethan times and reflects themes its audience could identify with. The Elizabethan society was a patriarchal one. The “Athenian…Law” helped reinforce gender stereotypes by elevating the status of men by deeming them as “God[s]” (1:2:47).
This made it difficult for women to exercise any independence as they were living in a male dominated society. For Elizabethan women Hermia may act as a spokesperson for those who were oppressed and could not speak out against. This underlines the darker aspect of the human experience, especially for a modern audience, as an entire gender is able to suppress and limit the progress of another. Since the Elizabethan times, the gap of women’s rights and gender equality has been narrowed so modern audiences could perceive Elizabethan society as being oppressive towards women, which some viewers may perceive as tragic.
The darker possibilities of the human experience are echoed throughout Act 3 Scene 2. The love potion has disrupted order and created animosity between the characters. The exchange of insults, “Ethiop” (3:2:56), “painted maypole” (3:2:296) and “vile thing” (3:2:260) suggest that there is a darker side to every person. They are quick to turn on each other and it is when a character feels wronged that their thoughts and words become vindictive. The triadic structure is repeatedly used throughout the scene: “of hope, of question, of doubt” (3:2:279). The emphatic use of these words could be interpreted as either violent or ridiculous. Hermia threatens that her “nails can reach unto [Helena’s] eyes” (3:2:298).
This scene is littered with violent imagery with references to “serpent” (3:2:261) and “cat…burr” (3:2:260) where zoomorphism showcases the animalistic nature of the characters. This reiterates that the green world allows characters to showcase their primal savagery which is reflected on stage by the characters shedding their clothes. This scene supports the central idea that it is in human nature to be dark and malicious.
Thomas Hardy said “one can discover the tragedy that underlines Comedy if you scratch it deeply enough”. The play has comedic elements as it follows the traditional structure: order, disorder, new order. This is evident in the literary structure of Puck’s soliloquy during Act 5 Scene 1. Shakespeare uses syntactic parallelism four times during Puck’s soliloquy. Each line follows the same structure. He starts the line with “Now” (5:1:349-65) which represents order and structure to his speech. Then the middle of each line is different as this may show disorder.
Lastly each line ends in rhyme which highlights the new order. The rhyme scheme starts off as alternate rhyme which creates a poetic rhythm. When the four lines beginning with “Now” are combined with the alternate rhyme scheme, it creates a crescendo which reaches its climax at the end of his speech. The last four lines are written in rhyming couplets. This could signal that he is concluding his speech which is a light aspect of the human experience as he is giving the audience closure.
Furthermore, Puck may have been trying to convey lighter aspects through the use of trochaic tetrameter, “And we fairies, that do run” (5:1:361), as it sounds light and airy. However tragedy is weaved through Puck’s speech as he is describing the dead spirits that emerge at night which reminds the audience of the darkness in the play. He provides an alternative reality which is that the night is the time for “sprites[s]” and wild animals. The collection of animalistic aural imagery, “hungry lion”, “wolf” and “screech-owl” suggest that Puck is warning humans of potential evil during night. His tone is dark and mysterious which is enhanced by silence in the 2013 Globe production. This could show that the lighter and darker aspects of the human possibilities are blended into each other. Happy and comedic images rest in darkness.
Threats of physical violence are used in the play during Act 3 Scene 2 which may give the impression of a tragic story. However violent language and imagery is portrayed in such a way that it appears eccentric and laughable. This is evident as the audience are aware that despite the tension the characters feel, there won’t be an outbreak of violence. This is because Oberon has foreshadowed “peace” (3:2:377). All prospects of violence are diminished when Lysander says to both the characters on stage and the audience, “I will not harm her” (3:2:270). This adds comedy to the otherwise aggressive language the characters say to each other.
The hyperbolic nature of Lysander’s facial expressions and delivery of speech, in the 2013 Globe production, combined with the dramatised actions and movement on stage generates visual and slapstick comedy. His extravagant actions are a device used to mask his otherwise threatening language which would support Penny Gay’s idea that “Words are often less important than actions”. This suggests that this scene is comedic rather than tragic as the audience are aware that nothing terrible will happen to any of the characters.
This reflects the lighter aspects of the human experience as it is safe for the audience to laugh. However other productions may choose to emphasise the aggressive nature of the language and the darker possibilities of the human experience rather than the comedic aspects. This suggests that this scene could be presented as light-hearted or malicious depending on the production. This supports the motif that tragedy and comedy are intertwined.
The play puts forth the lighter aspects of the human experience through Shakespeare’s use of dramatic irony. Shakespeare utilised this when Bottom, the unlicensed fool, undergoes his transformation into an “ass” (3:1:99). It has an ironic effect which is humorous as he is unaware of his new state. Similarly Titania’s love for her “angel” (3:1:107) and “sweet love” (4:1:25) is comedic as she too has been enchanted and humiliated into falling in love with a “lion, bear, or wolf, or bull” (2:1:180). A romance develops between a fairy queen and an artisan worker which Steven Mullaney described as a “social disruption”. It is this absurd juxtaposition combined with sexual innuendos that generates Farce comedy. “O, how I love thee! How I dote on thee!” This monosyllabic statement generates aural imagery and shows she is forceful and absolute in her devotion to Bottom.
Furthermore the bawdy language that Titania uses “Gently entwists; female ivy” (4:1:40) further humiliates herself which may be interpreted by some as funny were others such as Jonathan Hall may pick up on “violent sexual undertones”. It could be argued that this scene explores taboo ideas and acts as a pressure release. The prospect of seeing it illustrated across stage is comedic however it could be argued that audiences enjoy returning to society after being purged of their elicit desires. This prompts the idea that the function of comedy is sometimes radical but is “ultimately conservative” in the words of Penny Gay.
In conclusion, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is an acclaimed comedy. Some would disagree such as Samuel Pepys whose belief is that the play was “insipid and ridiculous”. Although in my view, it manages to capture both the light and dark possibilities of the human experience. My perception is similar to that of Denton Jaques Snider which is that “Tragic and Comic fade into each other”. The lines of Comedy and Tragedy are blurred and this is why they are able to merge so easily with each other. As there is no clear cut division between to two.
By Libin F
Glen Cengage, Shakespeare Criticism (2001)
Lisa Jardine: Still Harping on Daughters: Women and Drama in an Age of Shakespeare, 1983
Penny Gay: The Cambridge Introduction to Shakespearean Comedies (2008)
Samuel Pepys: Diary (1662)
Denton Jaques Snider: The System of Shakespeare’s Dramas (1887)
Steven Mullaney: The Place of the Stage: Licence, Play and Power in Renaissance England (1988)