An Analysis of William Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream Essay
Renaissance humanists believed that if you want to build a moral society, you must begin with the facts of human nature. Basically, this means that their beliefs are rooted on what can be seen, touched, and heard. Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream crossed the boundaries of humanism and Shakespeare actually put in the play elements which humanists believe did not exist.
For humanists, “Nature itself constitutes the sum total of reality, that matter and not mind is the foundation-stuff of the universe, and that supernatural entities simply do not exist.” (Lamont 145). This follows naturally that people then were with little, if at all, imaginative, and creative tendency. They were not keen to elements in literature such as fairies, or other supernatural beings; elements which are present in Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In the century preceding Shakespeare, “humanist” plays were often considered dull and moralistic, as they were often in didactic form.
Also, another attitude of Humanism towards the universe “like its judgment as to the nature and destiny of man, is grounded on solid scientific fact.” (Lamont 145). They believed that man was the cream of the crop of God’s creation, and that the earth and everything that revolves around it are the center of the universe. Again, it’s not difficult to imagine that consequently, this philosophy not only affects the scientific aspect of the era, but also the culture, including literature and other arts. People also took a belief in the interconnectedness of things, for example a physician administering a medicine according to the position of the planets.
But A Midsummer Night’s Dream, written sometime in the late 1500s seemed to have crossed boundaries. First of all, there are supernatural elements in the play which sort of went against the Humanist philosophy about supernatural entities not existing. Actually, the play is nothing short of magical. Not only do the mortals in the play associated with fairies, but the plot is manipulated by Puck, a hobgoblin. Bottom, on the other hand symbolizes a culture that survived from the Middle Ages until the Elizabethan times wherein “reign donkeys dressed up as bishops or dogs with Hosts in their teeth would appear in court masques.” (Bloom 73).
“Spirits and fairies cannot be represented, they cannot even be painted, —they can only be believed.” (Bloom 87). Apparently, this is not in line with Humanist philosophy, and this is what Shakespeare’s play brought people to believe also after the play’s publication. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is “Shakespeare’s first period of experiment with comic form.” (Bloom 7). Compared to his tragedies, this comedy not only was a trailblazer for rediscovery of classical literature, it also “knits together a number of different historical times and places, literary traditions, character types, and modes of thought.” (Bloom 7).
Humanists also believed that “whatever he does man is a living unity of body and personality, an inter-functioning oneness of mental, emotional and physical qualities.” (Lamont 274). Apparently, in the play, when Puck put the magical love juice in the eyes of Demetrius, Lysander, and Titania, this premise is not evident anymore, as they were not in their “right minds” when pursuing different love interests.
However, while Shakespeare challenged Humanism through his play, he also showed his influences through the characters, the plot and the sub-plot.
Italian Renaissance was an event which influenced Shakespeare in a lot of his works, but Italian Renaissance differs slightly from the English Renaissance, aside from the fact that it preceded the English Renaissance. Italian Renaissance was centered more on visual arts but sonnets also bloomed through Petrarch and Boccaccio. By the time Italian Renaissance was coming to an end and English Renaissance was blooming, writers were then rediscovering the classical literatures from the Italian Renaissance and picked up the sonnets. Shakespeare apparently was one of those writers.
Shakespeare’s influences with regard to some elements in the play come from Italian artists like the poet Ovid and the author Apulieus, which show Shakespeare’s rediscovery of the classical literature coming from the Italian Renaissance. For example, the story of Pyramus and Thisbe is told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses and the transformation of Bottom into an ass is descended from Apuleius’ The Golden Ass. Elements such as these show how vast Shakespeare’s influences are, and how experimental the play has become compared to his previous tragedies in terms of the characters and the plot.
I can say that through Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream, people looked at themselves differently, and appreciated more the beauty of the arts. Before Shakespeare, people seemed stuck-up and were conformed to being moralized by their literature. While it was necessary at that time, change is really inevitable. And through Shakespeare’s experimentation in the said comedy, different discoveries and rediscoveries enabled people to try out new things.
Throughout the Renaissance, there was a significant change in the way people looked at the interconnectedness of things. Writers and thinkers questioned the connections, while retaining a sense of their beauty as symbols. A major change which this era experienced is that people interpreted the correspondences of things from literal to symbolic, and appreciated more the beauty of the symbols.
Bloom, Harold, ed. William Shakespeare’s a Midsummer Night’s Dream. New York: Chelsea House, 1987
Lamont, Corliss. Humanism as a Philosophy. New York: Philosophical Library, 1949.
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.