Shakespeare, in his "A Midsummer Night’s Dream," uses his characters to cast a sense of derision over the use of the imagination. “The lunatic, the lover and the poet” are thrown together all on one line, and it is implied that the latter two are as crazy as the first. (Midsummer Night’s Dream, V.1.7) Despite this seeming scorn for plays and their ilk, Shakespeare is implementing a strong irony. Characters who scorn the imagination are no more than imaginings themselves – and, by this, Shakespeare is actually reinforcing a positive image of plays of the imagination.
Theseus’s denial of imagination’s worth reads more as apophasis than as any true refutation. Even as he scorns the poet for giving “airy nothing/ A local habitation and a name,” he vividly conjures images through metaphor. (V.1.18) Indeed, he is no more than an imagining named by a poet himself – which lends the writing further depth on multiple levels. On Shakespeare’s level, Theseus as a character lends himself well to irony; he is a sort of Fool in disguise. His witty wordplay and flowing metaphors are backed by his confidence that “such shaping fantasies…[are] more than cool reason ever comprehends.” (V.1.5) Theseus considers himself a creature of cool reason – and thus enters the irony, for he disbelieves his own existence.
Only some of the audience may have understood the irony. Shakespeare’s plays had a wide audience, and both nobles and ‘groundlings’ – that is, peasants – attended. The playwright’s humor had to keep all classes entertained; the nobles because they sponsored the theater (and increased his fame), and the groundlings because their rotten fruit would otherwise voice their displea...
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...inforces the positive image of plays which Shakespeare wishes to portray; that is, it shows that plays do matter, whether or not you believe they can affect the world – just as, in the play, magic does have a hand, whether or not its subjects believe in it. To strengthen his message, Shakespeare draws parallels between the cynical ‘voice of reason,’ Theseus, and the nobles in his intended audience. Thus, said nobles might see how little good Theseus’s cynicism ultimately did him, and that, as he was wrong in disbelieving in the fairies’ power over the lovers, he might be wrong in disbelieving the worth of imagination and plays, and their power over the world of cool reason.
Shakespeare, William. Edited: Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. A Midsummer Night's Dream. Folger Shakespeare Library ed. New York: Washington Square Press Drama, 1993.
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