Date of this Version
ELH 24:2 (June 1957), pp. 95-119.
The opinion that A Midsummer Night's Dream is largely a shimmering fabric of "moonlight, with a touch of moonshine" has become stock among students of Shakespeare. One rephrases habitual insights concerning gossamer and magic whenever one treats of the work. But there is more to the play than a dream. The efforts of historical scholars to place this comedy in the setting of its dramatic tradition, to see it as " sui generis, a ' symbolical' or masque-like play" suggest that we ought to revise our romantic preconceptions of its structure and theme. Elizabethan masques usually afforded pleasures more serious than those of moonshine, and A Midsummer Night's Dream is not unlike them in this respect. It was created for the solemn nuptials of a noble house, perhaps for those of the Earl of Derby or the Earl of Essex. For our purposes, the specific families involved matter little. Rather it is important that the significance of the play's symbolism and the raison d'etre of its pageantry can come clear through an examination of the occasion of its presentation. Commensurate with its origins in a court marriage, this drama speaks throughout for a sophisticated Renaissance philosophy of the nature of love in both its rational and irrational forms.