ABSTRACT

On first reading, and especially first viewing, A Midsummer Night's Dream is the sixteenth-century equivalent of a contemporary romantic comedy. The troubles of young Athenian lovers thwarted by meddling authoritarian custom are resolved by the intervention of natural, better yet supernatural, forces, after a chaotic evening in the forest, just beyond the law and order of the city. When the play concludes, the young lovers are all happily sorted with their proper companions, ending, as Shakespeare's comedies do, with harmonious partnership and marriage. But A Midsummer Night's Dream is more than a romantic comedy. It is a play in which Shakespeare takes us back to the ancient world to explore an alternative to the instability of hereditary monarchy, the regime that governs his England. Shakespeare's Theseus returns from foreign wars to wed Hippolyta, his captive Amazonian queen, and to transform his father's troubled monarchic regime into a mixed republic, based upon the contributions and ordered consent of the governed. To effectuate this transformation to a more equal and freer regime, Theseus must subdue the tensions between Athenian generations by challenging the assumption of patriarchal privilege and power that support the monarchy and its ancient laws, and reconciling the rebellious Eros of the Athenian youth to the new arrangement. In addition, he must persuade the aristocratic element in the city to include the artisan class in the new political order. Shakespeare shows us how a monarchy can transform into a republic and, thus, makes a romantic comedy of what begins as a potential tragedy.