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Essay on Shakespeare’s Sources for A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Shakespeare’s Sources for A Midsummer Night’s Dream

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of Shakespeare’s most-performed plays: a delightful comedy, but full of enough potential tragedy to avoid becoming saccharine. Much of that tragic possibility comes from Shakespeare’s sources, as he directly acknowledges in Act V. The entertainments Philostrate proposes, all stories taken from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, show the unhappy endings all too likely to spring from tales like that of the four lovers of Shakespeare’s play, or the strife-torn fairy rulers.

“The battle with the Centaurs, to be sung / By an Athenian eunuch with the harp” (V.i.44-5) is the first of Philostrate’s suggestions, and the most blatant. Centaurs are almost an epitome of the dangerous fairy-world that underlies so much of Shakespeare’s play: half-man, half-beast, they recall Bottom’s similar, albeit more humorous, condition. Lust and jealousy cause the undoing of the marriage feast, for the Centaurs’ theft of women provokes a battle. Thanks to the fairy intervention, all in Shakespeare’s play are happy with their spouses: but how might the wedding have been marred if Demetrius and Lysander both still loved Hermia? “These are the forgeries of jealousy” (II.i.81) cries Titania to Oberon, and their contention, likewise a result of lust and jealousy and unbridled nature, luckily enters the play only peripherally. Theseus’ law, and fairy medicine, overrules the lusty, animal side of love and prevents such violence from marring, indeed unmaking, the comedy.

“The riot of the tipsy Bacchanals, / Tearing the Thracian singer [Orpheus] in their rage” (V.i.48-9) is an alternate selection, but one just as significant. “The mad Ciconian women” (p.259) cry “There is …

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… scene. The meta-drama overcomes the actual play, and what was tragic becomes “tragical mirth,” what was a dire warning to heed society’s laws or fear the consequences is a gross entertainment and slapstick.

Theseus’ laws have overcome the bloody, passionate side of love: the man himself appears to have ceased his earlier, youthful amours to settle down with a wife, Hippolyta, vigorous enough to match his own martial nature. Indeed, he discounts the entertainments as those which he has already heard or told — they are old news to him, settled affairs, and he needs hear of them no more. The only reason “Pyramus and Thisbe” receives a hearing is its odd synopsis — and equally odd presentation! Shakespeare shows the alternate endings his play could all too easily have taken, to make us relish all the more the happy solution he and the characters have found.

Deception in Jonson’s Volpone

Deception in Volpone

In Volpone, Ben Jonson emphasizes the fun and the humor of deceit, but he does not overlook its nastiness, and in the end he punishes the deceivers. The play centers around the wealthy Volpone, who, having no wife or children, pretends to be dying and, with the help of his wily servant Mosca, eggs on several greedy characters, each of whom hopes to be made Volpone’s sole heir. Jonson’s ardent love of language reveals itself throughout the play, but especially in the words of Mosca and Volpone, who relish the deceptive powers of language. Volpone himself pursues his schemes partly out of greed, but partly out of his passionate love of getting the best of people. He cannot resist the temptation to outsmart those around him, particularly when fate delivers him such perfect gulls as the lawyer Voltore, the merchant Corvino, the doddering old Corbaccio, and the foolish English travelers Sir Politic and Lady Would-Be. Mosca too revels in his ability to beguile others, remarking “I fear I shall begin to grow in love / With my dear self,” so thrilled is he with his own manipulations. His self-love, however, proves his undoing, as it does for Volpone. Both characters become so entranced by their own elaborate fictions that they cannot bring themselves to stop their scheming before they betray themselves.

Jonson’s audience would have recognized both the wily Volpone and the parasitical Mosca as stereotypically Italian. English playwrights frequently borrowed characters from Italian drama and from Italy’s comic dramatic tradition, the commedia dell’arte. Venice, the setting for Volpone, evoked the glory of Italian art and culture, but also Italy’s decadence and corruption, which the English view…

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…trations were well known to be more than just “a little obscene,” as she says.

We are encouraged to laugh with Volpone and Mosca at the pretensions and hypocrisies of Lady Would-Be and the other ever-hopeful “heirs”; but ultimately Jonson chooses to punish the deceivers and asks us to side, however reluctantly, with the Venetian Senate in condemning them. Voltore, Corvino, and the others may richly deserve to be tricked, but Volpone and Mosca are not agents of justice, and we must not confuse them with such truly virtuous characters as Celia and Bonario. Nevertheless, Jonson gives Volpone the last word in the play’s Epilogue, where Volpone asks our forgiveness, and we find ourselves in complicity with him once again. We are invited in the end to revel in the delightfulness of deception, and of language, and to suspend, if only briefly, our moral judgments.

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