A Comparison of A Midsummer Night's Dream and Romeo and Juliet

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Various parallels in Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night's Dream tend to support the theory

 that the two plays are closely related. It is the purpose of this paper to

show that wherever parallels exist, the relationship is probably from

A Midsummer Night's Dream to Romeo and Juliet. A close analysis

of the spirit of the two plays, and of the different attitudes towards love

and life that they present, leads us to the conclusion that A Midsummer

 Night's Dream is the natural reaction of Shakespeare's mind from Romeo and Juliet.

 

It will be unnecessary in this paper to present all the evidence

bearing on the dates of composition of the two plays.  There can be

little doubt that the first version of Romeo and Juliet

appeared about 1591.  The date of the first version of the

Dream is more problematical.  The only bit of external evidence

is the mention of the play in Francis Meres's2 Palladis

Tamiain 1598, but the strongest bit of internal evidence-the

supposed reference to the death of Robert Greene, in Act v, I,

52-3:

 

The thrice three Muses mourning for the death

Of Learning, late deceased in beggary--

 

 

would fix the date at 1592-3.

    

Assuming, then, that the Dream was written soon, perhaps

immediately, after Romeo and Juliet, let us see if a

comparative study of the two plays will not support our

hypothesis.

 

Awake the pert and nimble spirit of mirth,

Turn melancholy forth to funerals

 

 

says Theseus in the first scene of the Dream, and later in the

first scene of Act v:

 

Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,

Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend

More than cool reason ever comprehends.

The lunatic, the lover, and the poet

Are of imagination all compact

 

 

These two speeches of Theseus, to whom Shakespeare has given much of

his own clear-eyed serenity and benignity, are, it seems to me,

significant manifestations of the poet's own mental attitude when he

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created the Dream.  He has just finished a passionate, romantic

tragedy of love; in this tragedy he has been led into somewhat

excessive emotionalism-certainly more so than in any other

play-his hero-lover has at times been "unseemly woman in a

seeming man, and ill-beseeming beast in seeming both"; "cool reason,"

serenity and poise have had no effect upon the "seething brain" of

the lover.  Now Shakespeare's own brain is not normally a seething

one, he "blood and judgment are well commingled"; true, he is not a

Friar Laurence nor even a Theseus, but neither is he a Romeo.  And now

as he looks at his tragedy of love, what impression does it make upon

him?   Be it remembered that we are now dealing with the young man,

Shakespeare, not with the man who, out of the storm and stress of his

soul, evolved a Hamlet, and Othello, a Lear, or

a Macbeth, but with the joyous, exuberant, deep-souled,

clear-eyed poet of the early comedies.  Is it not natural that

to him, far more than to any one else, the emotionalism and

sentimentalism of his tragedy should seem a trifle exaggerated and

ridiculous, and the tragic fate of the lovers morbidly gloomy?  And

so, shaking himself free of romantic ideals of love, he somewhat

quizzically allies lovers, lunatics, and poets; shows us in Theseus

and Hippolyta the calm and serene love of middle age; represents the

young, romantic lovers (the men, at least) as taking themselves very

seriously, but in reality being ruled entirely by he fairies, one

minute suffering agonies of love for one woman, the next for another;

love a mere madness, entirely under the control of the fairies (be it

noted that the magic juice has permanent effect upon Demetrius); and

at the beginning of the play strikes the keynote of it all:

 

Awake the pert and nimble spirit of mirth,

Turn melancholy forth.3

   

 

The similarities between the situation at the beginning of

the Dream and the main situation in Romeo and Juliet

are obvious, and it seems far more probable that Shakespeare borrowed

and condensed material from Romeo and Juliet, for mere

mechanical purposes here, than that he developed a great tragic plot

from this simple situation in which he does not seem to have been

particularly interested.  Detailed comparison of the two situations,

giving support to this theory, follows.

    

Lysander is accused by Egeus, the father of his lady, Hermia, of

making love much in Romeo''s manner

 

This man hath bewitch'd the bosom of my child:

Thou, thou, Lysander, thou hast given her rimes,

And interchanged love-tokens with my child:

Thou hast by moonlight at her window sung4

 

 

Egeus is not unlike Capulet, and makes similar speeches, less brutal

to be sure, for brutality would not sort with the nimble mirth of this

comedy, but no less tyrannical.  Compare, for example, Capulet's words

to Juliet (III.v.193-4) with Egeus's to Hermia (I.i.42-4)

 

Capulet:  An you be mine, I''ll give you to my friend

     An you be not, hang, beg, starve, die in the

         streets.

 

and

 

Egeus:  As she is mine, I may dispose of her: 

     Which shall be either to this gentleman

      Or to her death.

 

 

When Lysander and Hermia are left alone they indulge in a long and

somewhat artificial complaint of love.  Lysander would seem to have

been reading Romeo and Juliet, or at least some similar tale,

for he says:

 

Ay me!  for aught that I could ever read,

Could ever hear by tale or history,

The course of true love never did run

smooth--5

 

 

and then (the first in the series of hindrances in the course of

true love and evidently a reminiscence of Romeo and Juliet):

 

for either it was different in blood.

 

 

Lysander proceeds, still keeping Romeo and Juliet in mind, and

borrowing a very effective simile form Juliet:

 

Or, if there were a sympathy in choice,

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

Making it momentany as a sound,

Swift as a shadow, short as any dream;

Brief as the lightning in the collied night,

That, ion a spleen, unflods 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.6

 

 

Compare with this Romeo and Juliet,II.ii.117-120:

 

I have no joy of this contract tonight

It is too rash, too unadvised, too sudden,

Too like the lighting, which doth cease to be

Ere one can say 'It lightens.'

 

 

The only thing in Romeo and Juliet which seems to me

clearly to be borrowed from the Dream is Mercutio's

description of Queen Mab.  It has the exquisite delicacy and

daintiness of the descriptive passages of the Dream, but it is

not an integral part of Romeo and Juliet, and there is no

particular reason why, in this play, Shakespeare should be thinking

of fairies or fairy-land.  Moreover, if he had already conceived and

created Queen Mab when he wrote the Dream, would   he not

probably have made some reference to her in the fairy scenes of the

latter?  This is by no means, however, an unsurmountable difficulty

in the establishment of our main thesis, for the first edition of

Romeo and Juliet was published after the composition of

A Midsummer Night's Dream, and the very episodic nature of the

Queen Mab speech makes it quite possible that it was a late

addition.

 

"The tedious, brief scene of Pyramus and Thisbe" is, I think,

unquestionably a burlesque not only of the romantic tragedy of love

in general, but of Romeo and Juliet in particular.  The two

catastrophes are almost identical, and it seems hardly probable that

any dramatist would write his burlesque first and his serious play

afterward.  May it not be, also that  "Wall" and "Moon" are the result

of Shakespeare's own difficulties in presenting on the stage the great

Balcony-scene in Romeo and Juliet?

    

There are many similarities of style and expression in the two

plays which have no bearing upon our main point.  For example, Helena's

description of love and its workings, at the end of Act I, sc.i, is in

the same tone as Romeo's definition of love (I.i.196-200); Hermia's

vow to Lysander (I.i.169-178, particularly 169-72) is an echo of

Mercutio's conjuration of Romeo (II.i.17-21); Bottom's "O grim-looked

night" (V.i.171-3) and the Nurse's "O woeful day" (IV.v.49-54) are cut

from the same piece.  Another rather curious comparison, which is of

no significance except as it illustrates a kind of youthful cleverness,

is that of Quince's prologue (V.i.108-117) where by refusing to

"stand upon points" he says the exact opposite of what he means,

and Juliet's conscious and less artistic equivocation and ambiguity

in her conversation with her mother about Tybalt and

Romeo (III.v.84-103).



                                ENDNOTES

 

1.  Brooke, Stopford. (1832-1916) Author of On Ten Plays of

Shakespeare, which includes criticism and interpretation of William

Shakespeare.

2.  Francis Meres. Author of Palladis Tamia Wits Treasury,

published in 1598.

3.  A Midsummer Night's Dream(I.i.13-14).

4.  A Midsummer Night's DreamA Midsummer Night's Dream (I.i.132-4).

6.  A Midsummer Night's Dream (I.i.141-9).      

 


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