I sent for some dinner...and then to the King’s Theatre, where we saw Midsummer nights dreame, which I had never seen before, nor shall ever again, for it is the most insipid ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life.
– Samuel Pepys, 1662
I am very sensible that he do’s, in this Play, depart too much from that likeness to Truth which ought to be observ’d in these sort of writings; yet he do’s it so very finely, that one is easily drawn in to have more Faith for his sake, than Reason does well allow of.
– Nicholas Rowe, 1709
There is a kind of Writing, wherein the Poet quite loses sight of Nature, and entertains his Reader’s Imagination with the Characters and Actions of such Persons as have many of them no Existence, but what he bestows on them. Such are Fairies, Witches, Magicians, Demons, and departed Spirits... There is a very odd turn of Thought required for this sort of Writing... Among the English, Shakespeare has incomparably excelled all others.
– Joseph Addison, 1712
The imagination of the waking consciousness is a civilized republic, kept in order by the voice of the magistrate; the imagination of the dreaming consciousness is the same republic, delivered up to anarchy.
– Diderot, c. 1772
The piece has great poetical and dramatic merit, considered in general; but a puerile plot, an odd mixture of incidents, and a forced connection of various styles throw a kind of shade over that blaze of merit many passages would otherwise have possessed.
– Francis Gentleman, 1774
The different parts of the plot: the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta, Oberon and Titania’s quarrel, the flight of the two pairs of lovers, and the theatrical maneuvers of the Mechanicals, are so lightly and happily interwoven that they seem necessary to each other for the formation of the whole.
– August Wilhelm Schlegel, 1808
The Midsummer Night’s Dream, when acted, is converted from a delightful fiction into a dull pantomime. All that is finest in the play is lost in the representation... Poetry and the stage do not agree well together... Thus Bottom’s head in the play is a fantastic illusion, produced by magic spells: on the stage it is an ass’s head, and nothing more; certainly a strange costume for a gentleman to appear in. Fancy cannot be embodied any more than a simile can be painted; and it is as idle to attempt it as to personate Wall or Moonshine. Fairies are not incredible, but fairies six feet high are so.
– William Hazlitt, 1817
In the Midsummer-Night’s Dream, all Eden is unlocked before us, and the whole treasury of natural and supernatural beauty poured out profusely, to the delight of all our faculties.
– Francis Jeffrey, 1817
In the Midsummer-Night’s Dream, again, we have the old traditional fairy, a lovely mode of preternatural life, remodified by Shakespeare’s eternal talisman... The dialogue between Oberon and Titania is, of itself, and taken separately from its connection, one of the most delightful poetic scenes that literature affords.
– Thomas De Quincey, 1838
Throughout there is such a wanton play of fancy and frolic. Such chameleon-like succession of tricks and complicated cross-purpose that at first sight we are disposed to deny that it can possess any rational meaning.
– Hermann Ulrici, 1839
Bottom the Weaver is the representative of the whole human race…the same personification of that self-love which the simple cannot conceal and the wise can with difficulty repress.
– Charles Knight, 1849
The Midsummer Night’s Dream is too exquisite a composition to be dulled by the infliction of philosophical analysis
– J. O. Halliwell-Phillipps, 1879
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a psychological study, not of a solitary man, but of a spirit that unites mankind... The whole question which is balanced, and balanced nobly and fairly, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is whether the life of waking, or the life of the vision, is the real life.
– G. K. Chesterton, 1904
What else was Shakespeare’s chief delight in this play but the word-music to be spoken by Oberon, Titania, and Puck?… So recklessly happy in writing such verse does Shakespeare grow that even the quarrel of the four lovers is stayed by a charming speech of Helena’s 37 lines long. For Shakespeare has sacrificed every other more purely dramatic advantage to this one. He allows himself no absorbing complexity of plot, no development of character.
– Harley Granville-Barker, 1914
The quintessence of all these comedies (as we may say of Hamlet in respect of the great tragedies) is the Midsummer Night’s Dream... The little drama seems born of a smile, so delicate, refined and ethereal it is.
– Benedetto Croce, 1920
As far as there is a choice presented in the play it is between two kinds of love, the love of seething brains of the young Athenians, and the more balanced and rational love of Theseus and Hippolyta.
– Ernest Schanzer, 1955
A gap divides the human participants’ view from ours. This gap is unique in Shakespeare’s comedies in that it remains open even at the end of the play. We alone know that an immortal spirit has manipulated human events, and solved a mortal problem.
– Bertrand Evans, 1960
Love’s choices remain inexplicable, and the eventual pairings are determined only by the constancy of Helena and Hermia in their initial choices.
– R.W. Dent, 1964
I imagine Titania’s court as consisting of old women and men, toothless and shaking, their mouths wet with saliva, who sniggering procure a monster for their mistress.
– Jan Kott, 1964
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is itself a panorama of smaller scenes and characters, a great landscape with cities, woods, fields, mountains, valleys, river, ocean, and a host of figures representative of society and the supernatural. . . [T]he panoramas contribute significantly to the play’s atmosphere of magic, spaciousness and limitless possibility, all attributes of the power of imagination which it both derives from and celebrates.
– David P. Young, 1966
Anyone expecting the kind of “true-to-life” subtlety of personality with which Shakespeare endows characters in the other comedies will be disappointed at the thinness of detail in the “personalities” of Hermia, Helena, Lysander, and Demetrius… After reading or watching A Midsummer Night’s Dream we have the greatest difficulty remembering for long even important details about the characters… Their names seem little more than labels, as interchangeable as their alliances in the wood.
– Stephen Fender, 1968
We can at best give our rather arch approval to the elegance of the play’s verse, the symmetrical disposition of its worlds, and the graceful unfolding of its movements while at the same time, in the flintier portions of our soul, endorsing Theseus’s “I never may believe / These antique fables nor their fairy toys” (5.1.2-3).
– James Calderwood, 1971
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the happiest of Shakespeare’s plays, and very possibly the happiest work of literature ever conceived...A Midsummer Night’s Dream moves in dreamlike sequences as if on the brink of an eternal bliss.
– Thomas McFarland, 1972
"Pyramus and Thisby," while comic in performance, is unrelievedly tragic in conception. In it we see the spectacle of the father who harshly opposes the marriage of his daughter, just as was the case with Egeus and Hermia. But here the result is not reconciliation, but tragic death for the lovers. Similarly the menacing forest of the playlet, which contains the fatal lion, stands as a tragic alternative to the amiable world of the Athenian wood...In the cathartic world of art the outcome is death, not marriage. The play-within-a-play thus absorbs and disarms the tragic alternative, the events which did not happen. Art becomes a way of containing and triumphing over unbearable reality.
– Marjorie Garber, 1974
Some critics have felt the play affirms the importance of the world of dreams or fantasy, and shows that reason impoverishes the imagination; others have recognized the extent to which it also exposes the absurdities of the imagination and gives approval to the voice of reason. It seems to me that A Midsummer Night’s Dream achieves a splendid balance between the two; if the imagination makes possible visions and experiences otherwise inaccessible, and liberates natural energies from the restraints of reason, those visions and experiences are only given form and meaning through the reason.
– R.A. Foakes, 1984
Bottom wakes up along with the lovers and makes one of the most extraordinary speeches in Shakespeare...He will get Peter Quince to write a ballad of his dream, and “It shall be called Bottom's Dream, because it hath no bottom.” Like most of what Bottom says, this is absurd; like many absurdities in Shakespeare, it makes a lot of sense. Bottom does not know that he is anticipating by three centuries a remark of Freud: “every dream has a point at which it is unfathomable; a link, as it were, with the unknown.”...He will never see his Titania again, nor even remember that she had once loved him...But he has been closer to the center of this wonderful and mysterious play than any other of its characters, and it no longer matters that Puck thinks him a fool or that Titania loathes his asinine face.
– Northrop Frye, 1986
[The play] demonstrates the universal power of love, which can overcome the queen of fairies as readily as the lowliest of men. It also suggests the irrational nature of love and its affinity to enchantment, witchcraft, and even madness. Love is seen as an affliction taken in through the frail sense, particularly the eyes. When it strikes, the victim cannot choose but to embrace the object of his infatuation.
– David Bevington, 1988
At the beginning of the play Hermia and Lysander are types of young lovers right out of Greek and Roman literature, who plot to trick a stern father by escaping to a dowager aunt who will solve their problems for them. Helena, Echo-like, would be anyone, anything rather than be herself. And Demetrius, still a Narcissus, has been so frightened by the mystery of what he feels for Helena that he willingly accedes to Egeus's plan to arrange a marriage for him. All four, in self-confusion, follow the way of adolescence: flight. Keep moving before your self catches up with you.
– Robert Kimbrough, 1990
Shakespeare uses desire here as an instrument to differentiate between the genders: inside men, desire tends to eradicate the personality of [its object]; inside women, it does not.
– Mark Taylor, 1991
Puck is...so clearly a figure projected from the folk imagination, a way of giving a quasi-human identity and thus providing a reason for a series of random domestic mishaps, the unseen or disguised power that we still sometimes feel to be behind a daily world experienced as perverse, or for unexplained reasons resistant to or thwarting of our purposes.
– Ronald R. Macdonald, 1992
Puck is a spiteful manipulator, and all his pretty rhymes—he speaks or sings the play’s most gossamer verse—are not enough to give warmth to his character.
– Kenneth McLeish, 1992
It’s a play about four young people who get lost in a frightening place, a forest, at night. And in that forest their true selves emerge. They go through a metamorphosis and for that to happen, they have to go through pain and torment in order to discover who they are. They discover who they are in terms of sex and in terms of their relationships with each other. Young people today go through the same kind of trauma in their imagination and sexual awareness.
– Joe Dowling, 1993
[A Midsummer Night’s Dream] is his first undoubted masterwork, without flaw, and one of his dozen or so plays of overwhelming originality and power.
– Harold Bloom, 1998
Helena is accurate in perceiving that the terms of what she and Hermia once enjoyed have changed; that the asexuality, or sexual latency, of childhood has yielded to the sexual identity of young womanhood, and that men, once of so little importance that they could be excluded from the company of females, now possess the power to drive women apart, even with no effort on their part.
– Mary Taylor, 2002
They are, [the mechanicals] from the very start, set apart from the lovers. Unlike their social betters…Dream’s clowns…are infantilized. Sharing the perspective of their betters, audience members are asked to see these childlike men, from the moment of their introduction, as ignorant, uneducated, and socially dependant. This combination of attention and dismissal generates unusual tensions in Shakespeare’s comedy. It fosters an ambivalence that A Midsummer Night’s Dream has yet to fully resolve.
– Megan M. Matchinske, 2003
The Dream is all about translation, in the old sense of metamorphosis. Helena is prepared to give the world to be ‘translated’ into Hermia; Puck declares that he has ‘translated’ Pyramus; and in the most familiar line in this vein, Bottom's colleagues tell him, aghast, “thou art translated.”
– Ananda Lal, 2006
The Dream most famously animates our relationship with the unknown and unknowable: the world as it is when we are asleep: dreams, fairies, knavish sprites and those with a magical influence on our actions and emotions; the spirit world of myth and the unconscious world of modern psychology. It offers a remarkable version of an eternal fantasy: how would it be to meet, know and love the other side? And it asks the most basic of all questions; why do we do what we do?
– Tim Supple, 2006
The woods of A Midsummer Night’s Dream are a fantastical notion…If you really could live within your dreams you wouldn’t want to. They’re actually too vibrant, too potent, too extreme. There’s something right and normal about waking life. Dreams are good to have but we shouldn’t exist within them perpetually.
– Amanda Dehnert, 2008
– Contributed by the CST Education Department