A Midsummer Night's Dream (The new Penguin Shakespeare)

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9780140707021: A Midsummer Night's Dream (The new Penguin Shakespeare)

Change and transformation are central to the action, themes and language of A Midsummer Night's Dream. In this lucid study Helen Hackett shows how the play participates in a widespread 1590s concern with mutability; often, as here, expressed through moon-imagery, and associated with representations of the ageing Virgin Queen. However, it is also very much a play about procreative change, set at one of the 'green hinges' of the year, to use Angela Carter's phrase. The happy ending is marked by multiple marriages; and yet, these marriages have been achieved through conflict and force. Comedy veers close to tragedy, and vice versa in the inset Pyramus and Thisbe performance, illustrating Shakespeare's sense of the innate indeterminacy of genres. It is also Shakespeare's most Spenserian play in its depiction of a supernaturally animated natural world, providing the grounds for the characterization of Shakespeare as a poet of nature which was to prove so influential for Milton and the Romantics.

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Traditionally seen as one of Shakespeare's more romantic and enchanting plays, A Midsummer Night's Dream has more recently been seen as a darker and more sinister play than generations of schoolchildren have ever imagined. The play has usually been seen as a comical tale and confused identities and the fickleness of youthful love, as the young lovers, Lysander, Hermia, Demetrius and Helena escape parental control and the "sharp Athenian law" of their elders by eloping into the forest outside the city. Unfortunately they stumble into civil war in fairyland, where King Oberon and Queen Titania fight over possession of a beautiful young Indian "changeling" boy. The appearance of the "rude mechanicals", a group of Athenian workers, including the weaver Nick Bottom, compounds the confusion. Chaos, confusion and "shaping fantasies" reign before the final settlement of the play, but underneath all the hilarity many critics have discerned more ambivalent attitudes towards coercive parental control, bestial sexuality and the destructive power of desire. These approaches in no way detract from the exquisite lyricism of many sections of the play, but make it a more complex and effective comedy than has often been appreciated. -- Jerry Brotton

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