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But, though Chaucer and others had spoken about the fairy nation, it was for Shakespeare to let them speak for themselves : until ne clothed their substances in apt forms, their thoughts in fitting words, they but floated unseen and unheard in the mental atmosphere of his father-land. But for him, we might indeed have heard of them, but not have known them. So that Mr. Hallam is quite right in regarding A Midsummer-Night's Dream as “ altogether original in one of the most beautiful conceptions that ever visited the mind of a poet — the fairy inachinery. A few before him,” he adds, “had dealt, in a vulgar and clumsy manner, with popular superstitions ; but the sportive, beneficent, invisible population of air and earth, long since established in the creed of childhood, and of those simple as children, had never for a moment been blended with • human mortals,' among the personages of the drama." How much Shakespeare did as the friend and saviour of those sweet airy frolickers of the past, from the relentless mowings of Time, has been charmingly set forth by a poet of our own day. We allude to Thomas Hood's delightful poem, The Plea of the Midsummer Fairies.
Coleridge says he is “convinced that Shakespeare availed himself of the title of this play in his own mind, and worked upon it as a dream throughout.” And elsewhere he remarks that “ the whole of A Midsummer-Night's Dream is one continued specimen of the dramatized lyrical.” These observations, both of which spring out of one and the same idea, undoubtedly hit the true centre and life of the performance; and on no other ground can its merits be rightly estimated. This it is that explains and justifies the distinctive features of the work, such as the constant subordination of the dramatic elements, and the free playing of the action unchecked by the laws and conditions of outward fact and reality. A sort of lawlessness is indeed the very law of the piece : the actual order of things giving place to the spontaneous issues and capricious turnings of the mind; the lofty and the low, the beautiful and the grotesque, the worlds of fancy and of fact, all the strange diversities that enter into “ such stuff as dreams are made of,” every where running and frisking together, and interchanging their functions and properties : so that the whole seems confused, flitting, shadowy, and indistinct, as fading away in the remoteness and fascination of moonlight. The very scene is laid in a sort of dream-land, called Athens indeed, but only because Athens was the greatest beehive of beautiful visions then known; or rather, it lies in an ideal forest near an ideal Athens, - a forest peopled with sportive elves, and sprites, and fairies, feeding on moonlight, and music, and fragrance : a place where nature herself is supernatural ; where every thing is idealized, even to the sunbeams and the soil; where the vegetation proceeds by enchantment; and where there is magic in the germination of the seed and secretion Great strength of passion or of volition would obviously be out of place in such a performance : it has room but for love, and beauty, and delight, — for whatsoever is most poetical in nature and fancy; and therefore for none but such tranquil stirrings of thought and feeling as may flow out in musical expression : any tuggings of mind or heart, that should ruffle and discompose the smoothnesses of lyrical division, would be quite out of keeping with a dream, especially a midsummer-night's dream, and would be very apt to turn it into something else. The characters, therefore, are appropriately drawn with light, delicate, vanishing touches; some of them being dreamy and sentimental, some gay and froliesome, and others replete with amusing absurdities, while all are alike dipped in fancy or sprinkled with humour. And for the same reason the tender distresses of unrequited or forsaken love here touch not the moral sense at all, but only at most our human sympathies ; for love is represented as but the effect of some visual enchantment, which the king of fairies can undo or suspend, reverse or inspire, at pleasure. The lovers all seem creatures of another mould than ourselves, with barely enough of the fragrance of humanity about them to interest our human feelings, and whose deepest sorrow wears upon its face a flush and play of inward happiness. Even the heroic personages are fitly represented with unheroic aspect: we see them but in their unbendings, when they have daffed their martial robes aside, to lead the train of daydreamers, and have a nuptial jubilee. In their case great care and art were required, to make the play what it has been censured for being, – that is, to keep the dramatic sufficiently under, and lest the law of a part should override the law of the whole. So, likewise, in the transformation of Bottom and the dotage of Titania, all the resources of fancy were needed, to prevent the unpoetical from getting the upper hand, and thus swamping the genius of the piece. As it is, what words can fitly express the effect with which the extremes of the grotesque and the beautiful are here brought together; and how, in their meeting, each passes into the other without leaving to be itself ? What an inward quiet laughing springs up and lubricates the fancy at Bottom's droll confusion of his two natures, when he talks, now as an ass, now as a man, and anon as a mixture of both, his thoughts running at the same time upon honey-bags and thistles, the charms of music and of good dry oats! Who but another nature could have so interfused the lyrical spirit, not only with, but into and through a series or cluster of the most irregular and fantastical drolleries ? But indeed this embracing and kissing of the most ludicrous and the most poetical, the enchantment under which they meet, and the airy, dream-like grace that hovers over their union, are altogether inimitable and indescribable. In this unparalleled wedlock the very diversity of the elements seems to link them the closer, while this linking in turn heightens that diversity; Titania being thereby
of the sap.
drawn on to finer issues of soul, and Bottom to larger expressions of stomach. The union is so very improbable as to seem quite natural: we cannot conceive how any thing but a dream could possibly have married things so contrary; and that they could not have come together save in a dream, is a sort of proof that they were dreamed together.
And so, throughout, the execution is in strict accordance with the plan : the play, from beginning to end, is a perfect festival of whatsoever dainties and delicacies poetry may command, tinued revelry and jollification of soul, where the understanding is put asleep that fancy may run riot, and wanton in unrestrained carousal. The bringing together of four parts so dissimilar as those of the Duke and his warrior Bride, of the Athenian ladies and their lovers, of the amateur players and their woodland rehearsal, and of the fairy bickerings and overreaching; and the carrying of them severally to a point where they all meet and blend in lyrical respondence ; – all this is done in the same freedom from the rules that govern the drama of character and life.
persons is made to parody itself into concert with the others, while the frequent intershootings of fairy influence lift the whole into the softest regions of fancy. At last the Interlude comes in as an amusing burlesque on all that has gone before, as in our troubled dreams we sometimes end with a dream that we have been dreaming, and our perturbations sink to rest in the sweet assurance that they were but the phantoms and unrealities of a busy sleep. Ulrici, - whose criticisms generally appear too something, perhaps too profound, to be of much use, - rightly considers this reciprocal parody the basis and centre where the several parts coalesce and round themselves into an organic whole. Yet, as if this vital coherence of all the parts were not enough, the several threads are collected and bound together ; the nuptial doings at the close winding up whatsoever might else seem scattered and uncomposed, thus setting a formal knot upon an unity that was real before.
Partly for the reasons already stated, and partly for others that we scarce know how to state, A Midsummer-Night's Dream is a most effectual poser to criticism. Besides that its very essence is irregularity, so that it cannot be fairly brought to the test of rules, the play forms a complete class by itself : literature has nothing else like it ; nothing therefore with which it may be compared and its merits adjusted. For the Poet has here exercised powers ap. parently differing even in kind, not only from those of any other writer, but from those shown in any other of his own writings: elsewhere, if his characters be penetrated with the ideal, their whereabout lies in the actual, and the work may in some measure be judged by that life which it claims to represent : here the where. about is as ideal as the characters; all is in the land of dreams, -a place for dreamers, not for critics. The whole thing, moreover, swarms with enchantment: all the sweet witchery of Shakespeare's sweet genius is concentrated into it, yet disposed with so subtle and cunning a hand, that we can as little grasp it as get away froin it: its charms, like those of a summer evening, are such as we may see and feel, but cannot locate or define ; cannot say they are here, or they are there : the moment we yield ourselves up to them, they seem to be every where; the moment we go to master them, they seem to be nowhere.
Though, as already remarked, the characterization be here quite secondary and subordinate, yet the play probably has as much of character as is compatible with so much of poetry. Theseus has been well described as a classic personage drawn with romantic features and expression. The name is Greek; but the nature and spirit are essentially Gothic. Nor does the abundance of classic allusion and imagery in the story call for any qualitication here, because whatsoever is taken is thoroughly steeped in the efficacy of the taker. This species of anachronism, common to all modern writers before and during the age of Shakespeare, seems to have risen in part from a comparative dearth of classical learning, which left men to contemplate the heroes of antiquity under the forms into which their own minds and manners were cast. Thus all their delineations became informed with the genius of romance: the condensed grace of ancient character gave way to the enlargeinent of chivalrous magnanimity and honour, with its « high-erected thoughts seated in the heart of courtesy.” Such appears to have been the uo less beautiful than natural result of the 6 small Latin and less Greek," so often smiled and sometimes barked at, by those more skilled in the ancient languages than in the mothertongue of nature.
Puck is apt to remind one of Ariel, though they have little in common, save that both are supernatural, and therefore live no longer in the faith of reason. Puck is no such sweet-mannered, tender-bearted, music-breathing spirit, there are no such delicate interweavings of a sensitive moral soul in his nature, he has no such soft touches of compassion and pious awe of goodness, as link the dainty Ariel in so sweetly with our best sympathies. Though Goodfellow by name, his powers and aptitudes for mischief are quite unchecked by any gentle relentings of fellow-feeling: in whatsoever distresses he finds or occasions he sees much to laugh at, nothing to pity: to tease and vex poor human sufferers, and then to think “ what fools these mortals be,” is pure fun to him; and if he do not cause pain, it is that the laws of Fairydom forbid him, not that he wishes it uncaused. Yet, notwithstanding his mad pranks, we cannot choose but love him, and let our fancy frolic with him, his sense of the ludicrous is so exquisite, he is so fond of sport, and so quaint and merry in his mischief; while at the same time such is the strange web of his nature as to keep him morally innocent. It would seem that some of the tricks
once ascribed to him were afterwards transferred to witchcraft. Well do we remember a black spot in the bottom of the old churn over which we have toiled away many an autumnal evening. A red-hot horse-shoe had been thrown in to disbewitch the cream, and had left its mark there. Report told how a certain old woman of the neighbourhood was fretting and groaning the next morning with a terrible burn. Of course she was burnt out of the churn, and, she away, the butter soon came.
But of all the characters in this play, Bottom descends by far the most into the realities of common experience, and is therefore much the most accessible to the grasp of prosaic and critical fingers. It has been thought the Poet meant him as a satire on the envies and jealousies of the green-room, as they had fallen under his keen yet kindly eye. Surely the qualities uppermost in Bottom had forced themselves on his notice long before he entered the green-room. It is indeed curious to observe the solicitude of this Protean actor, and critic, and connoisseur, that all the parts of the forthcoming play may have the benefit of his execution ; how great is his concern lest, if he be tied to one, the others may be « overdone or come tardy off ;” and how he would fain engross them all to himself, to the end of course that all may succeed to the honour of the stage and the pleasure of the spectators. But Bottom’s metamorphosis is the most potent drawer-out of his genius. The sense of his new head-dress stirs up all the manhood within him, and lifts his character into ludicrous greatness at once. Hitherto the seeming a man has made him content to be little better than an ass; but no sooner does he seem an ass than he tries his best to be a man; and all his efforts that way only go to approve the perfect fitness of his present seeming to his former being.
Schlegel ingeniously remarks, that“ the droll wonder of Bottom's metamorphosis is merely the translation of a metaphor in its literal sense.” The turning a figure of speech thus into visible form is a thing only to be thought of or imagined; so that probably no attempt to paint or represent it to the senses can ever succeed. We can bear, we often have to bear, that a man should seem an ass to the mind's eye; but not that he should seem so to the eye of the body. A child, for example, lakes great pleasure in fancying the stick he rides to be a horse, when he would be frightened out of his wits were the stick to quicken and expand into an actual horse. In like manner, we often delight in indulging fancies and giving names, when we should be shocked, were our fancies to harden into facts : we enjoy visions in our sleep, that would only disgust or terrisy us, should we wake up and find them solidified into things. The effect of Bottom's transformation can scarce be much otherwise, if brought upon the stage. Delightful to think, it is intolerable to look upon : exquisitely true in idea, it has no truth, or even verisimilitude, when reduced to fact; so that, however gladly imagination receives it, sense and understanding revolt at it.