Study Questions on A Midsummer Night's Dream Flores
1. How does Hippolyta regard her upcoming marriage to Theseus? How would you direct this scene (including as the scene develops, when Hippolyta is present but does not speak)? Theseus chafes at waiting (consider his moon imagery and inheritance metaphor) while she feels the wedding is coming all too soon (1.1.1-11; she also figures the moon as chaste goddess Diana with Amazon-like? bow).
2. To what extent are Theseus' lines (1.1.16-19) recapitulated in the play's action and relationships? What cultural assumptions underlie his (the play's?) sexual politics? Also note recurring language that links love with pain.
3. Summarize Egeus' complaint against Hermia and his objections to Lysander. How does he view his daughter's role/identity? Where does Theseus stand on this issue and why?
4. Hippolyta was an Amazon, women warriors famous in Elizabethan literature for subduing male heroes, practicing infanticide on male offspring, and even murdering husbands to maintain their power. Queen Elizabeth was popularly known as the "Virgin Queen," a powerful monarch who remained unmarried despite pressure from subjects early in her reign who wanted to see her wedded (perhaps subject to at least one man) and bedded (to produce an heir). Consider the play's treatment of women, their power, their chastity or sexual behavior etc. Theseus, for example, tells Hermia she may either wed Demetrius, die, or "live a barren sister" (1.1.72) among other chaste women.
5. Lysander suggests that Demetrius wed Egeus (1.1.94). Explore the social (homosocial?) bonds and rivalries of men in the play. What attitudes do men take toward each other? What are the roles/functions of women in regard to men's relations with one another?
6. Lysander observes that the "course of true love never did run smooth" (1.1.134). Why? What are the obstacles to "true" love in this play? What are the social (cultural/historical) or psychological aspects (motives/bases) of such obstacles? Is it the "nature" of love to be bumpy rather than smooth? Can one avoid choosing "love by another's eyes" (1.1.140)?
7. René Girard argues that the lovers are caught up in self-defeating circuits of "mimetic" desire that produce rivalries and inferiority complexes as lovers seek to imitate (and thereby possess?) those who seem to be erotic absolutes (those who appear wholly self-possessed, seemingly without need or desire (e.g. Helena's desire to be Hermia 1.1.181ff). Analyze the lovers' crises of identity, difference, rivalry, and desire and their attempts to fulfill desire and to be recognized (loved?) by others (e.g., Helena, 2.1.201-09).
8. In Act Two, the lovers suffer unrequited love and betrayal—potentially tragic experiences—what affects the tone and comic potential of their exchanges?
9. To what extent are the “fairies” different from the play’s “humans”? How would you cast/present (costume/stage) the fairies?
10. Analyze Puck's role/function in the play. Does he have an "identity?" Terry Eagleton compares Puck's effect on others to the effects and force of unconscious desire: "in one sense the controlling centre of the action, yet a centre which is absent." Can you develop Eagleton's idea of Puck as a figure who discloses desires concealed by social forms?
11. Compare the largely "maternal" world described in Titania's speech (2.1.123-37) with Theseus' account of paternity in 1.1.46-51 to define what Louis Montrose argues is a "proposition about the genesis of gender and power."
12. Why is Oberon so adamant in his desire for Titania's "changeling boy?" Explicate his story of Cupid's attempt to influence the vestal votress and explore the imagery of Cupid's bolt as well as the floral images (2.1.155-174).
13. What do Bottom and his companions assume about theater (Act 3)?
14. Evaluate Titania's love for/treatment of Bottom (3.1.132,147,196; 4.1). Is she to be played as malevolent or ridiculous (e.g., 3.1.134). Any comment on the effect and import of the darker beauty of the lines at 3.1.179-81?
15. To what extent might the play’s comedy be tested by the lovers’ loathing and rivalry and doubts in 3.2?
16. Speculate on the cultural context/effects of Bottom's experience with Titania in his "dream," which Montrose calls an experience of "fleeting intimacy with a powerful female who is at once lover, mother, and queen."
17. Why does Bottom's dream have "no bottom" (4.2.214)? Analyze Bottom's speech in the context of the play's focus on dreams, “reality,” desire, and interpretation.
18. In terms of casting, if Theseus and Hippolyta have been double cast as Oberon and Titania, what difference might that make for their entrance in 4.1.99ff? For example, if doubled, then perhaps the night’s events could appear to have some effects on Duke Theseus’s rather abrupt decision to overrule Egeus (4.1.176).
19. How do we react to the new amity and changed affections among the lovers? Are they deluded in their newfound affections and lovers? And how are Titania and Oberon reconciled (and on what terms, whose terms)?
20. Compare the mechanicals and the court elite, particularly attitudes towards drama and patronage (e.g., 1.2, 3.1, 4.2, 5.1.36-37, 82, 210, 285, 362). Does Shakespeare's play support or repudiate Theseus's belief that plays are primarily forms of diversion and homage for the elite? What does Hippolyta think of Theseus's scorn for the lovers' "antique fables" (5.1.1-27)?
21. How much do you identify with Theseus and the lovers in their critical response to Pyramus and Thisbe?
22. Commenting on Theseus, Anne Barton suggests that the "life of the self-appointed critic of the imagination and the irrational is permeated by exactly those qualities he is concerned to minimize or reject." What might be these conditions and qualities?
23. Montrose argues that Theseus' life--which is marked by a "habitual victimization of women . . . is a discourse of anxious misogyny which persists as an echo within Shakespeare's text." How important is this muted presence of Theseus' "life" (outside?) the play?
What is the effect of giving the closing scene and lines to the fairies?
24. Does Puck's epilogue, where he claims that the audience may consider the play but a dream, resolve the problematic relations between dreams and waking reality? How does it respond to Theseus’s perspective on theatrical representations? Explain.
25. Review/summarize McEvoy’s comments (Shakespeare: The Basics), particularly the argument (from Krieger) that the play represents violence in forms of artful spectacle, with lovers who dramatize the power of literary and aristocratic modes of authority (over passion/desire). And Louis Montrose, as stated by McEvoy, finds the play’s comedy about “the containment of challenges to the symbolic and actual power of men over women.” How do such claims affect your understanding and response, or to Shakespeare’s comedies in general?
26. Compare the values and practices of Athens to fairyland. For example, both have social hierarchies with ruling figures, and ensuing conflicts of will over children, contrasts between body and spirit, and strife between the sexes. Beyond the similarities, what significant differences do you note, especially, for example, regarding Athens’ patriarchal presumptions versus fairyland’s depiction of female prerogatives? To what extent does fairyland seem to provide for a carnival world that questions or departs from established behaviors and order?
27. Review the play’s preoccupation with theatricality and with the fictions that preoccupy players and those who find such drama so necessary or compelling (e.g., 1.2 mechanicals cast play, 3.1 rehearsal interrupted by Puck, 4.1.196-211 Bottom wakes up, 4.2 Bottom returns to workmates, 5.1 the play within the play. Penny Rixon offers a couple of suggestions about these aspects of the play: “it is possible that one of the reasons for the Dream’s preoccupation with matters theatrical is to ridicule rigid theories that misunderstand how the popular theatre works. Indeed the play goes even further by exposing the fictions and pretences at the heart of social relationships in a similar way to carnival; in other words, it reveals the way that those in power construct a performance to legitimize their position and mask the realities of social organization” (in Shakespeare: Texts and Contexts 27). How would you start to elaborate upon and support Rixon’s contentions?
28. How does Greenblatt’s headnote/introduction to the play (in Norton edition) contribute to your understanding of one or more of the above questions?
29. Consider reading Geraldo de Sousa’s account of the play (in Ch. 1 of his book Shakespeare’s Cross-Cultural Encounters).