“So quick bright things come to confusion.”

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Act One

By Dennis Abrams


Act One:  At the Athenian court, preparations are underway for the marriage of Theseus and Hippolyta.  The royal couple is discussing arrangements when an angry Egeus storms in:  his rebellious daughter Hermia refuses to marry Demetrius as arranged, but prefers instead Lysander.  Although Demetrius formerly courted Helena (who still loves him), Theseus decrees that Hermia should obey her father (something which, in Shakespeare, rarely comes to any good), and announces that she has until the day of his own marriage (in just four day’s time), to decide.  Left alone, Hermia and Lysander resolve to elope, and arrange to meet in the forest.  But they reveal as much to Helena – who reflects that alerting Demetrius might be the way to win him back.  Elsewhere, a group of workers (the artisans) led by Peter Quince are busy making their own plans:  they hope to perform their own play, Pyramus and Thisbe, at the royal wedding celebrations.


Major Characters

Theseus, Duke of Athens

Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, engaged to Theseus

Philostrate, Theseus’s master of revels

Egeus, an Athenian gentleman, Hermia’s father

Hermia, Egeus’s daughter, in love with Lysander

Lysander, loved by Hermia

Demetrius, also in love with Hermia (with Egeus’s backing)

Helena, in love with Demetrius

Oberon, King of the Fairies

Titania, Queen of the Fairies

Robin Goodfellow (known as Puck), Oberon’s fairy attendant

Fairies, including Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Mote, and Mustardseed

The artisans:  Peter Quince, a carpenter (acts Prologue in the play Pyramus and Thisbe); Nick Bottom, a weaver (Pyramus), Francis Flute (a bellows-mender) (Thisbe); Tom Snout, a tinker (Wall); Robin Starveling, a tailor (Moonshine); Snug, a joiner (Lion)



Although as noted there is no one single source for the play, in it, Shakespeare amplifies Chaucer’s “Knight’s Tale” which helps to provide the wedding narrative, while classical sources include (as usual) Ovid’s Metamorphoses in Arthur Golding’s 1567 translation, Apuleius’s The Golden Ass, and a veritable plethora of other sources – more than in any other play.



The Dream is, as Shakespearean texts go, relatively pain-free:  a quarto version (Q1) typeset from the dramatist’s papers appeared in 1600 and was reprinted in 1619 (Q2).  The Folio edition (1623) suggests that Shakespeare tinkered with Act Five.


One of the many reasons that A Midsummer Night’s Dream is so popular, I think, is that it offers so much to so many.  It’s a romantic comedy, a comedy of love and lovers in the lyrical vein of Love’s Labour’s Lost but with that play’s more…baroque tendencies in check.  It’s festive – framed by a wedding that is meant to be celebrated, as Theseus promises his bride, “with pomp, with triumph, and with reveling,” it also has close resonances with the ancient festival of midsummer, traditionally a celebration of fertility.  It is a comedy that dwells extensively (and most enjoyably) in an Elizabethan “fairy land,” which interacts and collides with the human world of the play to an extent unseen in any other drama of the period.  And, it is a comedy in the more modern sense of that word.  In his glorious rendering of the entertainment mounted every so earnestly yet ever so misguidedly by Bottom and his fellow “thespians,” Shakespeare doesn’t just succeed in sending up the labors of the poet Arthur Golding (from whose translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses the story of Pyramus and Thisbe was taken), but creates a scene so simply and honestly funny, that audiences for four centuries have found it laugh-out loud hilarious, even without the help of footnotes.

But, I suspect, it is Shakespeare’s skill in synthesizing and shaping all these disparate materials that is mot impressive.  Though drawing his three groups of characters – the lovers, the artisans, and the fairies – from completely different walks of live (obviously), their experiences and fates are bound up in surprising and illuminating ways.  For some critics, it is a whole-hearted demonstration of Shakespeare’s optimism about the human condition, if only that when it all comes down to is, we’re all as ridiculous as the other.



From Garber:

“Shakespeare wrote A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the same years that he wrote Romeo and Juliet, and the two plays have a great deal in common.  In a way we could say that A Midsummer Night’s Dream is Romeo and Juliet turned inside out, Romeo and Juliet transformed into a comedy.  In both plays there are strong central figures of authority who attempt to order the world – the Prince in Romeo and Juliet; Theseus, Duke of Athens, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  In the two plays there are fathers who want to choose their daughters’ husbands – old Capulet wants Juliet to marry Paris, Egeus wants Hermia to marry Demetrius – and in both cases the women refuse, choosing other lovers (Romeo, Lysander) and planning to run away with them.  In both plays the disobedient or rebellious daughter is threatened with the life of a nun (Friar Laurence says he will ‘dispose’ of Juliet among ‘a sisterhood of holy nuns’; Hermia is asked to imagine wearing ‘the livery of a nun,/…Chanting faint hymns to the cold fruitless moon’).  Both plays strongly emphasize the difference between night, which transforms and changes, and day, which is rigid, inflexible, and associated with law.  And both plays use similar images and tropes:  the lark that rises at dawn, the nightingale that sings at evening, the lover’s stereotypical cry, ‘Ay, me!’ which Mercutio will mock, and Juliet sigh from her balcony.  In this play the same cry is heard from Lysander:

Ay me, for aught that I could ever read,

Could ever hear by tale of history,

The course of true love never did run smooth…

The ‘tale or history’ to which he refers is a strangely familiar one, a tale of star-crossed lovers.  It is almost as if Lysander has been watching, or reading, Romeo and Juliet.  And when he describes the fate of such doomed lovers, Lysander uses an image that appears over and over again in Romeo and Juliet – the image of lightning:

Or if there were a sympathy in choice,

War, death, or sickness did lay siege to it,

Making it momentary as a sound,

Swift as a shadow, short as any dream,

Brief as the lightning in the collied night,

That, in a spleen, unfolds both heaven and earth,

And, ere a man hath power to say ‘Behold!’,

The maws of darkness do devour it up.

So quick bright things come to confusion.

It is the tale of Romeo and Juliet, where Juliet thought their love was ‘too like the lightning which doth cease to be/Ere one can say it lightens.’  But this play makes clear from the beginning that its note will not be tragic.  The first line of the play announces that the audience is to be among the guests at the most canonical of all events in comedy:  a wedding.  ‘Now, fair Hippolyta, our nuptial hour/Draws on apace,’ says Theseus.  If A Midsummer Night’s Dream begins with a wedding – the standard conclusion of comedy – why, we might ask, do we need the play at all?  The answer, as always in Shakespeare, is that the participants have something to learn.  After reminding Hippolyta that ‘I wooed thee with my sword,/And won thy love doing thee injuries,’ Theseus announces:

But I will wed thee in another key –

With pomp, with triumph, and with reveling.

But the transition is not so easy to make.  The dangerous hints of force and law brought to mind by the troublesome concept of wooing with a sword reveal something about Theseus and the limits of his understanding, limits that will become more evident as the play goes on.  Those limits are immediately confirmed, in fact, by the arrival of Egeus, Hermia’s father, who has come to court to ask Theseus to enforce the law:

Stand forth Demetrius. – My noble lord,

This man hath my consent to marry her. –

Stand forth Lysander. – And, my gracious Duke,

This hath bewitched the bosom of my child.


I beg the ancient privilege of Athens:

As she is mine, I may dispose of her,

Which shall be either to this gentleman

Or to her death, according to our law…

The Duke, Theseus, immediately interposes, to add enforced chastity to Egeus’s more restrictive options:  marriage to Demetrius or death.  Allying himself with the authoritarian father’s request, Theseus mildly challenges Hermia to consult her temperament, since her choices are clear:

Either to die the death, or to abjure

For ever the society of men.

Therefore, fair Hermia, question your desires.

Know of your youth, examine well your blood,

Whether, if you yield not to your father’s choice,

You can endure the livery of a nun,

For aye to be in shady cloister mewed,

To live a barren sister all your life,

Chanting faint hymns to the cold fruitless moon.

Recall that this same Theseus is the same man who moments before had spoken blithely of wooing Hippolyta with his sword, and who is about to celebrate his own wedding, one that manifestly accords with his personal choice.  The rules and customs for dukes and for daughters in Athens may be very different, but still in the larger logic of this play it appears that both the authoritarian father and the authoritarian duke have a good deal to learn about the way love breaks old rules and makes for new ones.”


Tony Tanner in a discussion of the links between R&J and Dream elaborates on one of my favorite lines:

“Let me give one example of that inter-involvement, the strange mutual reflectingness of the two plays.  Lysander, confronting the (usual) paternal blockage of his love for Hermia, complains, at length, that ‘the course of true love never did run smooth’ (a line which has become a truism because it is the simplest possible expression of a simple truth).  He takes a perverse pleasure in elaborating on the number of ways in which true love can be variously impeded, frustrated, and otherwise derailed.  Including this:

Or, if there were a sympathy in choice,

War, death, or sickness did lay siege to it,

Making it momentary as a sound,

Swift as a shadow, short as any dream,

Brief as the lightning in the collied night,

That, in a spleen, unfolds both heaven and earth,

And, ere a man hath power to say ‘Behold!’

The jaws of darkness do devour it up:

So quick bright things come to confusion.

That last line is one of the most haunting in the whole of Shakespeare – it is hard to imagine poetry doing more than this in seven simple words, six darting monosyllables brought to a halt in the relative tangle of a trisyllable.”

And finally, from Frank Kermode’s Shakespeare’s Language:

“We are approaching the time when Shakespeare began to use a word or group of words as a central element, almost as a subject of exploration, in his verse.  In this play we also find that diversity of plot can be unified by commonality of interest.  A Midsummer Night’s Dream is probably the most original in conception and the best executed of Shakespeare’s comedies to date, and the most elaborately wrought as well as the most ‘intellectual’ since Love’s Labour’s Lost (though, in its revised form, that play probably belongs to 1597, which gives it a chronological affinity with the Dream).  Anne Barton thinks of the two plays, along with Romeo and Juliet and Richard II, as constituting ‘a natural group.’  Perhaps one should drop Richard II, which was composed under different constraints, but there are genuine resemblances among the others.  And they represent a new level of achievement.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the most remarkable of them; among other things, it exhibits the most elaborate and successful correspondence between the main plot and the subplot.  It clearly complies with William Empson’s description of the subplot as having ‘an obvious effect in the Elizabethans of making you feel the play deals with life as a whole,’ but the purpose is not simply that.  The subplot of Bottom and his actors is in a sense the main plot, since the Pyramus and Thisbe theme is there at least acted out, though farcically; and the plots are united not only by the performance of the play before the great ones but by the fairies, who give Bottom better insight into the truth of things than Theseus or his friends can provide; and who, when he has broken up the party (‘Lovers, to bed, ‘tis almost fairy time’), invade his house to bless it and bless the offspring of his new marriage.

The opening scene is masterly, establishing not only the narrative but the thematic interest.  Lysander is accused of corrupting the fantasy of Hermia:  disorders of the fantasy or imagination are a main topic of the play.  When Hermia complains that her father cannot see Lysander with her eyes, Theseus tells her she is required to subordinate her eyes to her father’s judgment or pay the penalty.  Lysander and Hermia alone complain of the misfortunes of love:  ‘So quick bright things come to confusion’.  (The passage recalls not only Romeo and Juliet, but also Venus and Adonis.  Now ‘poor fancy’s followers’ decide to elope.  Helena complains of her ill fortune, for Demetrius prefers Hermia’s eyes to hers.  The emphasis is always on the eye as the source of love, or rather of doting:  Helena ‘dotes,/Devoutely dotes, dotes in idolatry,’ and Lysander hopes Demetrius will ‘dote’ on Helena.  Doting is a disordered condition of the imagination, otherwise called ‘love,’ and it originates in ay eye uncontrolled by judgment.  This formula is hammered home in the first scene, and the characteristic lamentations about the brevity and mortality of love are introduced like a second subject in a sonata.

Helena, speaking for youth, argues that what her elders take to be doting is in fact something very fine:

And as he [Demetrius] errs, doting on Hermia’s eyes,

So I, admiring of his qualities.

Things base and vile, holding no quantity,

Love can transpose to form and dignity.*

Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind;

And therefore is wing’d Cupid painted blind.

Nor hath Love’s mind of any judgment taste;

Wings, and no eyes, figure unheedy haste;

And therefore is Love said to be a child…

In love the eye induces doting, not a rational, patient pleasure like that of Theseus and Hippolyta.  Helena’s remarks about the blind Cupid are traditional, love being irresponsible, a disease of the eye.  But there is a contrary, neo-Platonic interpretation of blind Cupid, namely that love transcends even sight, the highest of the senses, and is indeed above intellect, and this idea, or something very like it, is at work in the play.”

*This anticipates the experience of Bottom with Titania.




So…what do you think so far?  Are you as excited about reading this play as I am?


Our next reading:  A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act Two

My next post:  Sunday evening/Monday morning


And enjoy your weekend.

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1 Response to “So quick bright things come to confusion.”

  1. Mahood says:

    Thanks for the documentary on the staging of the play – well worth a look. Interesting too that critic Harold Bloom has hated every production of it that he’s seen, with the exception of Peter Hall’s motion picture of 1968. Have you been able to locate that version anywhere on the net?

    I was very excited at the prospect of reading this play…and two acts in, I’ve not been disappointed!

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