Hello again, everybody! This week, I gave a presentation in class on A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare. Before diving into secondary sources, here a little background on the text itself. According the Oxford edition, A Midsummer Night’s Dream was written and first performed in 1595 or 1596 (when Shakespeare was approximately 31 years old) judging by its stylistic likeness to Love’s Labour Lost, Richard II, and Romeo and Juliet. There is some debate as to the exact birth date of the text, however, this is one of the limitations of working with a Shakespearean text. Additionally, according to Holland who wrote the introduction in the Oxford edition, A Midsummer Night’s Dream presents fewer textual problems than most other Shakespeare works (112). Another limitation of working with Shakespeare is that scholars are sometimes presented with textual problems or discrepancies in Shakespearean texts. However, compared many of Shakespeare’s other works, A Midsummer Night’s Dream present very few of these issues which means that what we read on the page is as close to what Shakespeare intended for us to read as possible.
First I would like to direct your attention to the Dreaming in the Middle Ages by Kruger which was a supplemental reading from the week we read A Midsummer Night’s Dream last semester. I’m sure professor Tougaw will post this reading on the site, however, it can also still be found on the fall semester’s calander. In the first chapter, Kruger tells readers that a popular belief of the Middle Ages was that dreams could be used to divine future events. Kruger writes, “Medieval approval of dream divination was expressed in the existence and popularity of manuals designed to reveal the future significance of dreams” (7-8).
There are texts that offer instruction on how to interpret dreams and in these texts we can see the importance that was placed on the meaning of dreams during a time period that precedes Shakespeare. This belief that dreams may be used to predict the future is based on Biblical events in which people’s futures are predicted or they speak to God in dreams.
Giraldus Cambrensis, a medieval writer: “Whatever vain imaginings other men may have on the subjects of dreams, I think we should sometimes believe and sometimes disbelieve them, just as we do rumors” (16). Kruger tells us that double statements like this are the usual for this time. Although many people do believe that a lot can be inferred from dreams, there is a debate on whether or not dreams should be read into very much. As a result, you have many writers making double statements and choosing to not fully support one side or the other.
At the time of this play’s writing, there was great controversy surrounding way people thought about dreams and what they mean. In the introduction to the Oxford edition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream Thomas Nashe, a Renaissance commentator on dream theory is quoted saying, “A dream is nothing else but a bubbling scum or froth of the fancy, which the day hath left undigested; or an after-feast made of the fragments of idle imagination…” (10). This thinking goes along with many other’s beliefs of this time that dreams were simply a reflection of our waking desires that then manifest themselves as dreams while we sleep. They could relate to being hungry, being stressed, or sexual desire. Nashe later goes on to claim that “there is no certainty in dreams” (11).
This conflicts with the other popular idea of the time that there is some greater meaning in dreams. People who believed that there was meaning in dreams thought there to be two types of dreams. They agree that there were some dreams which were simply reflections of our waking lives, but also believe that there were others that hold true meaning.
This other view is expressed in an anonymous play written in approximately 1600 (within 5 years of A Midsummer Night’s Dream) called The Wisdom of Doctor Dodypoll. In this play a character is quoted agreeing that there is a type of dream that is physical but then goes on to say, “The other hyper-physical: that is, / Dreams sent from heaven, or from the wicked fiends, / which nature doth not form of her own power, / But are extrinsicate, by marvel wrought, / And such was mine” (11). By looking at this other play of the same time period, we can see that this debate over the validity and implications of dreams was a wide debate during the time of Shakespeare. He certainly was not the only person writing about dreams or how they should be interpreted. Additionally, a connection can be drawn to medieval writings about dreams. Although this play is focused on a social debate of the time, Shakespeare does not take a side in it. There are times in the play when he claims that the events of dreams are important and should be taken seriously (like when all the events of the play are written off as a dream), but then refutes this by saying that audiences may disregard the events a they would an unimportant dream. Shakespeare’s entire play is a big double statement.
The existence of this social debate is an important thing to understand about the historical time period of the play’s writing. If on the exam you find yourself writing about the historical context of this play, it would be a very good thing to remember that there was a debate surrounding dream theory and whether or not dreams have meaning unless we give them meaning going on at the time.
I hope this was helpful! If anyone has any questions or there is anything that I can clarify a bit, please don’t hesitate to leave a comment below! 🙂