‘Past the wit of man to say what dream it was’
In his most dreamlike play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare borrows – and transcends – early modern ideas about the meaning of dreams
A year or so before Shakespeare started work on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, his occasional collaborator Thomas Nashe – dramatist, essayist, and literary pugilist – published a take-down of the belief that dreams had supernatural origins and mystical meanings.
In The Terrors of the Night (1594), Nashe poured scorn on those who saw prophetic significance in night-time visions, arguing instead that ‘a dream is nothing else but the echo of our conceits in the day’. In a metaphor that unconsciously anticipated modern cognitive science, he compared ‘the working of our brains after we have unyoked and gone to bed’ to ‘the glimmering and dazzling of a man’s eyes when he comes newly out of the bright sun into a dark shadow.’
Nashe’s rational explanation of dreams as the ‘froth of the fancy which the day hath left undigested’ flew in the face of religious and physiological wisdom. Physicians had long assumed that dreams functioned diagnostically, revealing to a doctor the state of a patient’s health. It was widely believed that dreaming of particular things – losing an eye, or bloody teeth, or seeing a hare – portended death, either one’s own or someone else’s. Chiefly, of course, dreams seemed to offer the faithful a space and a language with which to communicate with God. In his Treatise of Melancholy (1586) Timothy Bright explained that in dreams ‘we see with our souls’, making us ‘more fit to apprehend… divine oracles’. For Bright, ‘every dream seemeth to be a kind of ecstasy or a trance.’ No wonder that faith in dream-divining persisted long after Shakespeare’s time. In 1658 the preacher Philip Goodwin defined a dream as ‘a close-covered dish brought in by night for the soul to feed on.’ Is it not appropriate, Goodwin continued, ‘for a man after to uncover the dish, to see and know what meat he hath eaten?’
Dreams occupied a confounding place in early modern minds, and in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (first staged in 1595 or 1596) Shakespeare gave voice to a spectrum of views. He borrowed some of Thomas Nashe’s scornful scepticism to flesh out Theseus’ attitude of ‘cool reason’: in Act V the Athenian duke is dubious about the lovers’ experience of magical goings-on in the forest, accounting the story ‘more strange than true’ and ascribing their fantasies to an overheated imagination. But the play seems to give far more creative scope to the possibilities of dreams and waking visions. All six of the lovers – Helena, Hermia, Lysander, Demetrius, Titania and Bottom – fall asleep, most of them several times over. Once the action of the play moves to the Athenian woods, the story unfolds in the bleary intervals between these unrestful naps. Oberon’s love-potion is certainly the immediate cause of the confusions that arise, but the whole play has the quality of trippy bewilderment that Hermia expresses when she jolts awake out of a dream, exclaiming at the ‘serpent crawling [up her] breast’ and eating her heart.
Hermia’s revealingly phallic serpent suggests something else about the way Shakespeare understood dreams in his magical play. They are chiefly a channel to our desires, our expressible loves as well as our inexplicable passions. As Helena remarks in Act I, ‘love looks not with the eyes but with the mind’, and is therefore subject to any number of fantasies and misdirections. Being in love – or rather, bedazzled and benumbed by desire – is rather like being in a dream; overwhelming sexual attraction makes us – dreamlike – do bizarre things. Looking back on her night of errors, Hermia thinks ‘I see these things with parted eye, / When everything seems double’; Titania – confronting the memory of her night with Bottom – asks with trepidation, ‘how came these things to pass?’
‘Being in love – or rather, bedazzled and benumbed by desire – is rather like being in a dream; overwhelming sexual attraction makes us – dreamlike – do bizarre things’
Shakespeare was innocent of Sigmund Freud, so he probably wasn’t thinking about repressed desires when he matched Titania with a donkey. But he may have seen in this woozy world of untethered sexuality a dreamlike place of license and possibility, a prospect that Shakespeare and his audience would have viewed with mixed feelings, to say the least. Early modern people were enjoined to keep their passions under control; all manner of mental and physical illnesses could be expected to result from poorly-managed bodily humours. The four Athenian runaways end up shuffled into the right pairings, but their impulsive behaviour is not entirely forgotten, even if it is forgiven by Theseus and Egeus. Titania is chastened into compliance by her drugged seduction of Bottom – which is of course exactly what Oberon intended.
It is Bottom who models the wisest behaviour in response to the dream visions of the Athenian woods. The ‘most rare vision’ with which he is left when he awakes in Titania’s bower defi es interpretation, a memory ‘past the wit of man to say what dream it was’. Bottom’s dream, he concludes, ‘hath no bottom’: unfathomable and polymorphous, it just is. Perhaps the best thing to do with these midsummer night’s dreams is enjoy them. As Theseus dispatches the recently-married lovers to bed at the end of the play, Puck appears to tell us that we too ‘have but slumbered here / While these visions did appear’: without realising it, we’ve been indulging in the same kinky visions as Bottom, Titania, and the Athenian runaways…
A version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream will be streamed for free in 2020 as part of our YouTube Premieres season.