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A MIDSUMMER-NIGHT'S DREAM.
A MIDSUMMER-NIGHT'S DREAM was entered in the books of the Stationers' Company, by Thomas Fisher, October 8, 1600. In the course of that year was published a quarto pamphlet of thirtytwo leaves, with a title-page reading as follows: "A MidsummerNight's Dream: As it hath been sundry times publicly acted by the Right honourable, the Lord Chamberlain his servants. Written by William Shakespeare. Imprinted at London for Thomas Fish er, and are to be sold at his shop, at the Sign of the White Hart, Fleetestreet: 1600." Another edition came out the same year, "printed by James Roberts." The play was not printed again till in the folio of 1623, where it stands the eighth in the list of comedies.
Fisher was a publisher, but not a printer; Roberts was both; and the entering of the play to the former seems to argue that he had the copy-right, and that the edition of the latter was unauthorized. Yet, from the agreement of this and the folio in certain misprints, we are brought to infer that Heminge and Condell must have taken Roberts' text in making up their copy for the press. In all three of the copies, however, the printing is remarkably clear and accurate for the time, leaving little room for controversy as to the true reading: probably none of the Poet's works has reached us in a more perfect state. As an instance of the general cor rectness, Knight aptly refers to the Prologue of the Interlude which is carefully mispointed in the original copies; thus showing that either the proof was corrected by the Author, or the printing was from a very clear manuscript. The main difference betwee the quartos and the folio is, that the latter distinguishes the acts the scenes are not marked in either.
The play is mentioned by Meres in his Palladis Tamia; which ascertains that it was made before 1598: and a curious piece of internal evidence renders it highly probable that the writing was after 1594. One of the finest passages in the play is in Act ii
sc. 1, where Titania describes the confusion of the seasons, and the evils thence resulting to man and beast; and the description tallies so well with the strange misbehaviour of the weather in 1594, as to leave scarce any room for doubt as to the allusion. The disorderly conduct of the elements that year is thus recorded in Strype's Annals from a discourse at York by Dr. King: "Remember that the spring was very unkind, by means of the abundance of rain that fell. Our July hath been like to a February; our June even as an April: so that the air must needs be infected." Again, after recounting other signs of the divine wrath, the preacher adds,"And see, whether the Lord doth not threaten us much more, by sending such unseasonable weather, and storms of rain among us: which if we will observe, and compare it with what is past, we may say that the course of nature is very much inverted. Our years are turned upside down : our summers are no summers; our harvests are no harvests; our seed-times are no seed-times. For a great space of time scant any day hath been seen that it hath not rained." To the same effect Mr. Halliwell has produced an extract from the Diary of Dr. Simon Forman, showing how the heavy rains
"Have every pelting river made so proud,
So that we can hardly choose but conclude that the play, or at least the passage in question, must have been written after the summer of 1594, when the Poet had passed his thirtieth year. And surely, the truth of the allusion being granted, all must admit that passing events and matters of fact were never turned to better account in the service of poetry.
Another passage has been often quoted and discussed as bearing upon the matter in hand. We confess ourselves quite unable to make any thing out of it for that purpose. In Act v. sc. 1, when the parties interested are considering what entertainment shall be made choice of to grace the forthcoming nuptials, the Master of the Revels produces "a brief how many sports are ripe," the third item of which is
"The thrice three Muses mourning for the death
Some have regarded this as pointing to the death of Spenser, which occurred in 1599; others, as referring to Spenser's Tears of the Muses, which appeared in 1591. The former, of course, could not be the case but upon the supposal that the lines were written in at a revisal, which would rule them out of the question as to when the play was first made. The latter might indeed pass, but for what Theseus says of the performance there desig nated.
"That is some satire, keen and critical,
a description to which The Tears of the Muses nowise corresponds. Mr. Knight suggests that the passage may refer to Harvey's "keen and critical," but ungenerous attack upon Greene, soon after the death of the latter in 1592: which suggestion, however, he does not himself consider of much value, wherein we cordially agree with him.
Upon the whole, therefore, the best conclusion we can form is, that the play was written somewhere between 1594 and 1598. Yet we have to concur with Mr. Verplanck, that there are some passages which relish strongly of an earlier period; while again there are others that with the prevailing sweetness of the whole have such an intertwisting of nerve and vigour, and such an energetic compactness of thought and imagery, mingled occasionally with the deeper tonings of "years that bring the philosophic mind," as to argue that they were wrought into the structure of the play not long before it came from the press. The part of the Athenian lovers certainly has much that would scarce do credit even to such a boyhood as Shakespeare's must have been. On the other hand, there is a large philosophy in Theseus' discourse of "the lunatic, the lover, and the poet," a noble sagacity in his reasons for preferring the "tedious brief scene of young Pyramus and his love Thisbe," and a bracing freshness and inspiriting hilarity in the short dialogue of the chase, such as the Poet's best years need not blush to have been the father of. Perhaps, however, what seem the defects of the former, the far-fetched conceits and artificia! elegances, were wisely designed, in order to invest the part with such an air of dreaminess and unreality as would better sort with the scope and spirit of the piece, and preclude a disproportionate resentment of some naughty acts into which those love bewildered frailties are betrayed. So that we cannot quite go along with the judicious critic last mentioned, in thinking the part in question to have been the remains of a juvenile effort, with which, after a long interval, the heroic personages and some of the fairy scenes were amalgamated or interwoven.
It is hardly to be supposed that this play could have been very successful on the boards. Though unsurpassed and unsurpassable in its kind, such a preponderance of the poetical over the dramatic could scarce have been greatly relished by the same audiences and in the same places where those performances so intensely crowded with dramatic life made their Author "the applause, delight, the wonder of our stage." Notwithstanding, as evidence that the play enjoyed a good share of fame, we may quote a passage from Sir Gregory Nonsense, by Taylor the Water-poet in 1622: "I say it is applausefully written, and commended to posterity, in the Midsummer-Night's Dream,- If we offend, it is with our good
will: We come with no intent but to offend, and show our simple skill." And a manuscript has been discovered in the Library at Lambeth Palace, showing that the play was represented, Septem ber 27, 1631, at the house of John Williams, Bishop of Lincoln; the same great but by no means faultless man who was so harshly treated by Laud, and gave the King such crooked counsel in the case of Strafford, and spent his last years in mute sorrow at the death of his royal master, and had his life written by the wise, witty, good Bishop Hacket.
Some hints for the part of Theseus and Hippolyta appear to have been taken from The Knightes Tale of Chaucer, as may be seen by the extracts given in our notes. Chaucer's Legend of Thisbe of Babilon, and Golding's translation of the same story from Ovid, probably furnished the matter for the Interlude. So much as relates to Bottom and his fellows evidently came fresh from nature as she had passed under the Poet's eye. The linking of these clowns in with the ancient tragic tale of Pyramus and Thisbe, so as to draw the latter within the region of modern farce, thus travestying the classic into the grotesque, is not less original than droll. How far it may have expressed the Poet's judgment touching the theatrical doings of his time, perhaps were a question more curious than profitable. The names of Oberon, Titania, and Robin Goodfellow, were made familiar by the surviving relics of Gothic and Druidical mythology; as were also many particulars in their habits, mode of life, and influence in human affairs. Hints and allusions, scattered through many preceding writers, might be produced, showing that the old superstition had been grafted into the body of Christianity, where it had shaped itself into a regular system so as to mingle in the lore of the nursery, and hold an influential place in the popular belief. Some features, or rather some reports of this ancient Fairydom are thus translated into poetry by Chaucer in The Wif of Bathes Tale:
"In olde dayes
the King Artour,
Of which that Bretons speken gret honour,