Cultural Politics of Fantasy in Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream

by Dianne M. Hunter

September 10, 2003


A Midsummer Night's Dream contrasts and joins two realms: the Athenian/Elizabethan world of hierarchy and sharp law vs. the Minoan/Celtic world of shapeshifting and fusion. The play represents an English state of mind in which a Celtic imaginary functions as creative repository of occulted power and the infantile unconscious. The play's focus on ocularity revisions the patriarchal primal scene though the use of the Celtic, wherein the yoking of disparate elements proves productive and transformative. The fairies as unseen watchers and unrecognized agents in the Athenian social world are analogous to the unconscious in psychoanalytic theory, and can be identified as Celtic, occulted, creative forces in English culture. Latent oral/primal scene fusion fantasies at the heart of the drama and their transformations provide developmental analogues for the Celtic world absorbed into English national character to manifest creative effects.



      "This green plot shall be our stage."

--Peter Quince, A Midsummer Night's Dream, III.i.3-4.

     A Midsummer Night's Dream is green. What else is Celtic about this play? It has a changeling, a motif we associate with fairy folk. It has fairies. It has nature sprites and natural magic. It emphasizes the power of imagination. It has a strain of melancholy--in Bottom's loss of Titania. It has magical language. If the real world cannot be dominated, language at least can be bent to the will, a strategy of control open to those without other recourse. These characteristics--emphasis on imagination, melancholy, and magical use of language--Matthew Arnold defined as belonging to the Celtic strain in English literature.

          According to Arnold's formulations of its influence on English literature, "Celtic" pertains to the ancient Gauls and Britons, and the modern Bretons, Welsh, Irish, and Gaelic Scots. Arnold (1867), writes, "If I were asked where English poetry got . . .its turn for style, its turn for melancholy, and its turn for natural magic, for catching and rendering the charm of nature in a wonderfully near and vivid way, --I should answer, with some doubt, that it got much of its turn for style from a Celtic source; with less doubt, that it got much of its melancholy from a Celtic source; with no doubt at all, that from a Celtic source it got nearly all its natural magic" (Harrold and Templeman, Eds., p. 1100). I take "natural magic" here to mean the magic of nature itself. This Celtic "natural magic"--the alchemy of nature--shows itself in A Midsummer Night's Dream's invoking and representation through personification of the splendors of the physical world; the bringing into view of nature sprites and little people who appear and disappear; the details of dew, shadows, hawthorn bud, mustard seed, honey, cobweb and moth--all constantly in motion; the invocation of the coming and going of light and darkness, and the turning of the season; all this and the delightfulness of its aural and visual appeal fall into what Arnold defines as the Celtic in English literature. 

     Celtic forces appear in Shakespeare's plays from the beginning to the end of his career. They brood on the margins of the Lancastrian tetralogy, haunt Mercutio in the form of Queen Mab, exert latent, maternal power in Hamlet (Aguirre 1996), and get renounced when Prospero gives up his Druidical staff and charms, relinquishing the aid of his "weak masters"-- those "elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes and groves" who work by moonshine (1616, 5.133-41). In Shakespeare's history play Richard II, the combination of an undefeated Irish rebellion and Richard's personality as a fantasist undermine his kingship. Failing to control the material world of royal England, Richard journeys to Ireland to quell what he imagines are his subjects. The banished Henry Bullingbrook, a realist, lands during Richard's absence, circulates a false rumor that Richard is dead and thus disperses Richard's Welsh supporters, setting the King up for abdication/usurpation. In Shakespeare's Scottish play, the occult dominates Macbeth's imagination and invades the stage in the uncanny moving forest out of ancient Welsh poetry (Castay, 1984). In this play, the patriarchal, oedipal unconscious and the irrational embodied by its protagonist stab their way into history (Hunter, 1988). History is then stabilized as continuity when the boy Malcolm, patrilineal heir to the Scottish crown, joins forces with the English King Edward to defeat the spuriously-charmed Macbeth, a "devilish" (1603, 4.3.118) hibernal giant. Malcolm's Scottish-English alliance figures the accession of the Scottish King James as "newly planted" joint monarch of England, Ireland, and Scotland, consequent to the uprooting of the barren Tudor sceptre of Macbeth/Elizabeth. Katherine Duncan-Jones observes that by 1601, Ireland had drained the pockets of the English gentry and Queen Elizabeth's infertility was blamed for crop failures in her realm. Elizabeth "had become deeply unpopular both with many of the landed gentry, bankrupted by forced contributions to the Irish wars in 1599, and the rural poor, who superstitiously associated a succession of bad harvests with the inauspicious rule of a barren old woman" (Duncan-Jones, 2003: 4). Both Elizabeth and James were crowned rulers of England with Welsh ancestry stemming from the red-haired commoner Owen Tudor. 

     A Midsummer Night's Dream contrasts and joins two realms. One realm adopts a phallic stance and supports conquest, as in Theseus's battle against the Amazons and his slaughter of the Minotaur, half-man, half-beast. The other kingdom uses the magic within its own realm, as in Titania's rule or Queen Mab's. The play represents an English state of mind in which a Celtic imaginary functions as a creative repository of occulted power and the infantile unconscious. The occulted power in the drama transforms and deconstructs the violent heterosexual yoking comprising patriarchal, Athenian dominance. Revisioning the patriarchal primal scene though the use of the Celtic, yoking proves productive and transformative. The fairies as unseen watchers and unrecognized agents in the Athenian social world I am analogizing to the unconscious and I am identifying them as Celtic, an occulted, creative force in English culture. The Minoan vis-^-vis the Greek was for Freud an image of the preoedipal giving way to oedipal thinking ([1931], 1961, XXI: 226). I argue that the latent oral/primal scene fusion fantasy at the heart of A Midsummer Night's Dream provides a developmental analogue for the Celtic world absorbed into English national character to manifest creative effects. 

     Violent yoking goes with government in the play. Heterosexual yoking and violence represent patriarchal Athenian/Elizabethan hierarchy. The transformative fairyland, which can be read as both Celtic and Minoan, opposes and undermines the Athenian/Elizabethan hierarchy structuring the court scenes that begin and end the play. The Celtic/Minoan transformative moon, labyrinth, and dreamscape deconstruct and counter the "cold fruitless moon" (I.i.73) Theseus perceives. In the forest, the moon is metamorphic, illuminating a labyrinthine, green world at the center of which one sees a union of beauty and the beast. The ultimate in transgression of differences, the spectacle provided by the Bottom-Titania liaison can be read as a figure for the metatheatrical and intertextual synthesis A Midsummer Night's Dream achieves in its dreamlike fusions of disparate source materials.

     By focusing attention on the play's ocularity, its strands of imagery of eyes and sight, one can identify latent primal scene and oral fusion fantasies. These fantasies underlie and motivate the hierarchical structure of Shakespeare's world and threaten its stability. The play enacts these fantasies in shape-shifting fullness while containing them within a dramatic form that both collapses and maintains Elizabethan hierarchy. Multiple staging of scenes involving porous boundaries effects the play's style of subversive conservatism. By transmitting the unseen in visible form, A Midsummer Night's Dream alchemically brings suppressed Celtic imagination into dynamic harmony with an early modern linguistic and social sensibility.  

     In this play a Celtic consciousness observes and influences what goes on in world remaining unconscious of it. Although the Celts were long thought to have existed on the margins of England, modern genetics tells a different tale of the Celtic in England. Far from having been defeated and forced to the edge of Anglo-Saxon and Norman England, the Celts intermarried with successive waves of immigrants (Capelli et al.). Like the appearing and disappearing force of the forest in A Midsummer Night's Dream, the Celtic fused into English national character, to manifest creative effects.

     A Midsummer Night's Dream's taps into the legends of Huon de Bordeaux, which contain the figure of Oberon. Shakespeare, from Stratford, not far from Wales or from Cornwall, invokes the faery tradition and the Green Man motif, part of the local folklore of his native region. Warwickshire, Shakespeare's native region, had also been home to Thomas Malory, who during the Wars of the Roses composed his compilation of Arthurian romances centered on the Lady of the Lake, Queen of Faery Land.

     Marjorie Garber writes, "Concepts of dream and the dream world in the English Renaissance derived from a number of significant sources: the literature and philosophy of classical Greece and Rome, the native heritage of English folklore, and the medieval tradition of the dream vision" (1974, 1). A bearer of culture, Shakespeare translated and transformed these traditions. Shakespeare's plays are compromise-formations synthesizing diverse cultural streams. He wrote in the era when English nationalism first found literary voice, and defined English patriotism in John of Gaunt's famous deathbed speech in Richard II. If we think of England as a state of mind, not a consciously organized political institution (Richard Rose, quoted by Bogdanor, p. 6), we must regard this state of mind as hybrid, rooted in a diverse genetic heritage and at least in part a matter of language. The language Shakespeare spoke absorbed Renaissance influences of new literacy. Thanks to the printing press, book loads of foreign stories, names, and images flowed into English, which managed to assimilate to its already hybrid stock of Celtic, Anglo-Saxon, and Norman-French, the Athenian Theseus, the Cretan Minotaur, the Amazon, the Babylonian Pyramus and Thisby, Ovid's metamorphic tales and Apuleius' Golden Ass, with Isis. This language invokes and controls visible and invisible worlds.

     The drama's historical topicality alludes to Queen Elizabeth's virginity, in a play preoccupied with virginity and its loss. Though Cupid has taken aim at Elizabeth, a "fair vestal, throned by the west" [in England], his love-shaft was quenched, says the Fairy King, "in the chaste beams of the wat'ry moon," and "the imperial votress passed on, / In maiden meditation" (II.i.158-163). When Theseus lectures Hermia on the happiness of sexual penetration and the endurance required to live as "a barren sister" all her life, chanting "to the cold fruitless moon," he is careful to remark the "single blessedness" of those who "undergo such maiden pilgrimage" (I.i.72-78). These references and those to Diana, goddess of the moon and of the hunt, and to the Fairy Queen, can be taken as reverential bows to the virgin monarch and they have led commentators to infer that Elizabeth was in attendance at a performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream given to celebrate a (second) marriage.  

     Since we are watching a play named as a dream, the title of A Midsummer Night's Dream suggests an equation of dreaming and playwatching. If we follow this implication psychoanalytically, we may ask what latent dream thoughts or fantasies are transformed into the manifest play we see or read. Freud calls the interpretation of dreams the "royal road" to the unconscious. The royal road to the latent content of this play may be to look at what Lacanian psychoanalysis would call its "Imaginary." In Lacan's reformulation of psychoanalysis, what he calls the register of the Imaginary refers to both a chronological stage in individual maturation and the later survival of sense-making patterns marked by its preverbal, pre-oedipal forms of understanding.

     This register refers to what Freud called narcissism and ego psychologists call the oral stage, centered on the eyes and mouth, on taking in, on seeing ourselves mirrored in the mother's face, on being fed, on developing trust in the outer world's capacity to sustain us, on mastering self-other differentiation and primal ambivalence, and on preverbal, sensory perceptions. Lacan thought the central event of this early phase of development was the "mirror stage" in which the small child identifies its own image either in the face of the mother, especially in her eyes, or in an actual mirror. Object-relations analyst D. W. Winnicott (1971, p. 131) points out that what a child sees when it looks into the mother's eyes is related to what she sees when she looks at the child; identity formation via internalization of an identification is thus a matter of mutual gazing rooted in the fusion with the body of the mother characterizing primary narcissism. Imaginative constructs rooted in and evoking this early stage of human development show a preoccupation with illusions of oneness, doubling, and binary spatial relationships of inside/outside (Clement and Cixous, pp. 164-5).

     Although A Midsummer Night's Dream opens in a world apparently ruled by father figures and therefore an oedipalized world, we are immediately given signs of female noncooperation with male desire when Theseus complains about how slow the moon is in bringing in his nuptial hour: "This old moon [...] lingers my desires/ Like to a stepdame or a dowager, / Long withering out a young man's revenue" (I.i.4-5). Theseus imagines he has waited so long for marital consummation his estate will have dwindled by the time he gets it. Having won his Amazonian bride by capture, Theseus looks forward to marriage, whereas she seems cold and unwilling. Her initial speech is sad, one can conclude from Theseus's call to his Master of Revels to awake the spirit of mirth. Theseus won his wife by doing her injuries; and in place of Revels called to cheer her up appears the young man Demetrius, who seems determined to marry Hermia against her will. Hermia counterparts Hippolyta and the dowager moon as representations of female noncooperation with patriarchal authority and desire. These parallels clinch when Hermia decides to elope from her father and Athenian law to a refuge provided by Lysander's dowager aunt, "Of great revenue" (I.i.158-159), who lives seven leagues outside Athens.

     The flight to the green world of the forest brings the lovers into the domain of the Fairy, a pre-oedipal world of synaesthesia, identity confusion, nurturance, and magical transformations. Subversion of patriarchal, oedipal culture inheres in the notion that the world of fathers is at heart ruled by subliminal fairy forces of shapeshifting provision and magical words. Freud speaks in "The Uncanny" (1919) of how works of art can create powerful emotional effects by first setting up a version of reality and then invading it by another. Though there are some comically uncanny effects in A Midsummer Night's Dream, such as Bottom's transformation into a halfass, the effect of the opening of the drama into the green world is more marvelous than uncanny. It is not that the real world gets invaded by the irrational, as in the apparitions of Hamlet's father's ghost or the coming of Birnam Wood to Dunsinane, but that the green world accommodates and supports female and pre-patriarchal desires thwarted by harsh Athenian realities dramatized by the opening of the play. Freud's theory of literature as a form of daydreaming or playing suggests that literature is a domain where we may make up for the limitations of reality. The Celtic-inflected realm of fairyland in this play seems to correspond to the capacity to transform reality to conform to wishes.

     Though Oberon is King of Fairyland and King of Shadows, his power doesn't extend over his wife. We see a contest between male and female power evocative of pre-oedipal conflict between matriarchal domination of the nursery and paternal jealousy of the amount and quality of attention a mother gives to her infants at the expense of her husband's claims on her. Most apparent is Oberon's attempt to separate the Indian boy from Titania. One can read Oberon's wish to make the changeling child a member of his train as a demand for sexual differentiation, a masculinization of the pre-oedipal child. Whereas the development task of the oral stage is self-other differentiation, the oedipal stage differentiates genders and generations, conventionally dividing boys from girls and boys from their maternal identifications and girls from their maternal attachments. In order to separate the changeling boy from the mother-figure Titania, Oberon resorts to the very unpatriarchal recourse of cuckolding himself and thus shifting Titania's bond from the Indian child to the monstrously transformed Bottom, on whom she dotes and whom she feeds, pets, and protects as if he were another one of her infants. While Oberon is effecting through visual aphrodisiac the masculine identification of the changeling child whom he wins by default, Helena alludes to the passing of love between women. She laments to Hermia, whose name suggests "hermaphrodite," that marriage is rending their "ancient love asunder." She recalls how once they were as if "incorporate," one body "Like to a double cherry, seeming parted, /But yet an union in partition" (III.ii.208-210). Helena's vision of their fused bodies evokes the imaginary register of narcissism in which a child is part of the mother, unindividuated from her body, with which it identifies. The same patriarchal system of sex/gender socialization that divides the Indian boy from Titania and places him as a follower to Oberon divides the two women as they "join with men" (III.ii.216) in marriage.

     The monstrous coupling of Beauty and the Beast raises to view another aspect of the unconscious fantasy material informing A Midsummer Night's Dream. Freud's later work on dreams identified mastery of fears as a function of the dreamwork, an advance on his first idea that dreams are disguised attempts to fulfill wishes rooted in infantile pleasures. While there is pleasure in the ridiculous spectacle of Titania enraptured with her grotesque Bottom, this pleasure is latently alarming for prospective brides and grooms, and in retrospect humiliating for Titania. Titania and Bottom as improbable lovers provides a comic version of what Iago in Othello calls "the beast with two backs"--a primal scene fantasy in which heterosexual coupling degrades and bestializes. This same fantasy recurs in the play-within-the-play to which three newly married couples form an audience at the end of A Midsummer Night's Dream. In "Pyramus and Thisbe," we hear about how Thisby was deflowered by a lion, left a bloody scarf as a trace of the violence, and how her husband in consequence stabbed himself in the pap. This deflowering-devouring, blood, and attack on the breast echo Hermia's reference to her virgin patent in Act I, and perhaps the Amazons' cutting off of a breast to seal their commitment to the warrior life, as well as Hermia's dream of her heart being eaten by a serpent. 

Thus far I have identified three kinds of unconscious fantasy material in this drama:

1) primal scene fantasies of forced love, sex as violence, as monstrosity, and as oral/visual enchantment; 2) preoedipal-oedipal borderline fantasies of gender rebellion and differentiation; 3) oral fantasies of a maternal realm of magical transformation, shapeshifting, boundariless fullness. From a classical psychoanalytic view, one might say that the play reaches this transformative realm through regression to orality from an oedipal world resisted by female noncooperation aided by antipatriarchal male seduction on the part of Lysander, who won Hermia's heart by rhymes and love songs rather than by getting her father's love first as the law decrees.

     The oral, narcissistic or imaginary register iteratively shows itself in the imagery of the drama. Imagery of eyes and sight marks A Midsummer Night's Dream. Hermia gasps, "O hell, to choose love by another's eyes!" (I.i.140). Helena demands of Hermia, "teach me how you look" (I.i.192). Lysander imagines the Moon seeing herself reflected in a body of water: "Phoebe doth behold/ Her silver visage in the wat'ry glass" (I.i.209-210), an image that seems to evoke maternal narcissism and the mirror stage of development. Among the drama's numerous references to eyes and sight, we must include the spying by the fairies, especially Puck and Oberon; the instances of dreaming and waking, when the world appears to Hermia "with parted eye, / When everything seems double" (IV.i.189-190); the love juice applied to the eyes and producing visual rapture. The play's thematic preoccupation with the imagination as a creative transformer of reality in poetry, love, and lunacy point to the Imaginary register too. This preoccupation is born out in the overall conflict of the drama, which deploys the metamorphosing forest against the sharp Athenian law which it modifies so that Theseus gives up hunting, overrules Egeus to allow Hermia and Lysander their hearts' desire, and champions the artistry of the play-within-the-play. Although men take verbal command of the play once the couples move toward marriage, the charm of the drama is in the dreamy, shapeshifting, synaesthesthetic, preverbal lullaby world of the forest, opened to a reality beyond the filters of differentiated senses, sexes and even species. As Theseus observes of the breakdown of language in the prologue to the play-within-the-play, there is "sound but no government; nothing impaired, but all disordered" (my italics). Theseus's speech about how he must rule over love, lunacy, and poetry was put into his mouth by a poet who thereby rules him (Montrose, p. 192). Theseus conquered the Cretan Minotaur, but a Minoan-Celtic underworld charms him.

     If the central fantasy of this drama may therefore be analyzed as oral fusion subverting oedipal differentiation, how shall we interpret the play-within-the-play, which customarily reads in Shakespeare as an encapsulated version of the deepest meaning of the overall work? Oral fusion may be part of the visual imagery implicit in playwatching. The conflict of young lovers divided by family obligation in "Pyramus and Thisby" reflects on the conflict of Hermia and Lysander with Demetrius and Egeus; so in that sense the play holds a mirror up to nature, reflecting in art the social realities of the onstage audience. This coheres with the oral, narcissistic dimensions of reflection and projective identification. The interior play also functions as a replay of the primal scene fantasies aroused by the idea of Theseus wooing with a sword (love as violence), the spectacle of Titania in bed with monstrous Bottom, and the orgiastic connotations of the flights through the woods and the square dance-like changes of partners among the four young lovers. The play begins with a primal scene fantasy reported in words, moves toward an enacted scene of monstrous sex denied by exaggeration, assigns the orgiastic forest scenes to dreamland, and then distances sex-as-violence to a play.

     But a play-within-a-play, like a dream within a dream, expresses in disguised form the deepest meaning of the overall dream but denies it is real--it is only a dream; this strategy of psychic distancing provides a layer of protection that allows a social unpleasantness to emerge in shadow form. In this play, the unpleasantness is the representation of sex as violent and infantilizing, and courtly love conventions of desire with required obstacle as ridiculous. The play overall manages to show romantic coupling as ridiculous, violent, unstable, and infantilizing while conserving patriarchal Athenian/Elizabethan hierarchy reformed by secret magical forces that subvert its harshness.

          Works Cited

Aguirre, Manuel, "Life, Crown, and Queen: Gertrude and the Theme of Sovereignty," The Review of English Studies: A Quarterly Journal of English Literature and the English Language XLVII: 186 (May 1996): 163-174.
Arnold, Matthew [1867], "On the Study of Celtic Literature," English Prose of the Victorian Era, Eds. Harrold, C.F. and W. D. Templeman [1938], (New York: Oxford U Press, 1962).

Bogdanor, Vernon, Review of Krishan Kumar, The Making of English Identity (Cambridge University Press, 2003), TLS, June 6, 2003. 

Capelli, C. et al., "A Y chromosome census of the British Isles," Current Biology 13 (May 2003): 979-984.  

Castay, Marie-Therese, "Du Cad Goddeau a Birnam Wood," Caliban 21 (1984): 43-47. 

Cixous, Helene and Clement, Catherine [1975], trans. Betsy Wing, The Newly Born Woman (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986). 

Duncan-Jones, Katherine, "Regular Royal Queen: Elizabeth I in life and death," TLS May 9, 2003. 

Evans, G. Blakemore, Ed. The Riverside Shakespeare (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974). 

Freud, Sigmund [1931], trans. James Strachey, Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud (London: Hogarth Press, 1961).  

Garber, Marjorie. Dream in Shakespeare: From Metaphor to Metamorphosis (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1974).  

Hunter, Dianne, "Doubling, Mythic Difference and the Scapegoating of Female Power in Macbeth," The Psychoanalytic Review" 75: 1 (Spring 1988): 129-152.

Montrose, Louis. The Purpose of Playing: Shakespeare and the Cultural Politics of the Elizabethan Theatre (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1996). 

Winnicott, D.W. [1971]. Playing and Reality (Middlesex, England: Penguin 1980). 
Dianne Hunter Trinity College English Department, Hartford, CT 06106 USA

To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Dianne M. Hunter "Cultural Politics of Fantasy in Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available July 19, 2024 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: September 5, 2003, Published: September 10, 2003. Copyright © 2003 Dianne M. Hunter