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@00309211 08/01/2014 Shakespeare and the Play of Thought, Essay 2 Interlocking Genres: Conventions, Experiments, Effects How the Spectator Interprets Character and Action in A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Winter's Tale Student: @00309211 Shakespeare and the Play of Thought Level 6 Academic Year: 2013-14

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An essay on the use of genre in Shakespeare.


Page 1: Interlocking Genres: How the Spectator Interprets Character and Action in A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Winter's Tale



Shakespeare and the Play of Thought, Essay 2

Interlocking Genres: Conventions, Experiments, Effects

How the Spectator Interprets Character and Action in A Midsummer Night's

Dream and The Winter's Tale

Student: @00309211

Shakespeare and the Play of Thought

Level 6

Academic Year: 2013-14

Tutor: Carson Bergstrom

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Interlocking Genres: Conventions, Experiments, Effects

How the Spectator Interprets Character and Action in A Midsummer Night's Dream and The

Winter's Tale

The status of comedy has never enjoyed a too high standing position in the world of literary

criticism – certainly not when considered in contrast to its nobly-born sibling, tragedy. If one of

them had to be the bastard child of drama, that would be comedy. Even Shakespearean comedy can

sometimes be dismissed as not that impressive as Merchant shows by quoting commentaries like

Hazlitt's: “He was greatest in what was greatest [tragedy]; and his forte was not trifling” (3).

Approaching plays like A Midsummer Night's Dream or even The Winter's Tale with an attitude

similar to the one described above can seriously affect a reader's or spectator's understanding and

interpretation of the text. Accordingly, this essay attempts to correct such preconceptions by looking

at and analysing the above mentioned plays as true works of art and masterpieces. Moreover, it will

observe that comedy in Shakespeare is never pure comedy, but a mixture of diverse generic material

moulded into the particular shape desired by the playwright; it will show that this shape is not

chosen aleatory but with a purpose. Through his use of genre, Shakespeare manipulates the

interpretation of characters and actions in order to achieve the desired effects in his audience, even

if the route there might imply complicating the job of the reader/spectator.

According to the Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms, comedy is “a play (or other literary

composition) written chiefly to amuse its audience by appealing to a sense of superiority over the

characters depicted. A comedy will normally be closer to the representation of everyday life than a

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tragedy and will explore common human failings rather than tragedy's disastrous crimes. Its ending

will usually be happy for the leading characters” (Baldick). Moreover, comedy often implies a

“tendency to derive delight from watching characters who come to find situations difficult and

problematic (although to the audience they are clear and simple)” (Childs and Fowler). Also, there

is an “unemotional appeal of comedy which, according to some, derives from the absence of any

deep sympathy and the distance which comedy sets up between characters and audience” (Childs

and Fowler). But, when observing Shakespearean comedy, these generic characteristics are

sometimes changed or entirely absent. However, one aspect that shows comedy in opposition to

tragedy can be identified in regard to characters: in tragedy, there is usually a reduced number of

leading characters who go through complex interior conflicts; in comedy, however, there are more

characters of equal importance who do not have an interior conflict and are not, therefore,

significantly transformed throughout the play. On the same lines of particularities of Shakespearean

comedy, Hillman claims that by “generating pleasure and relief instead of pity and terror” (148),

comedy “secures not simply submission but assent” (148).

Drama is a form of art composed of several elements, one of which (though of great

importance, not the only one that matters) is the literary text. Therefore, analysing a text intended

for performance like any other work of literature can lead to erroneous interpretations, unnecessary

problems, and other complications. A play should “be judged as by a spectator who is allowing

himself to be caught up by it in performance and to be carried away into its illusion” (Padford li).

Although reading the play can have its advantages, the experience differs greatly from that of seeing

it performed. In Literature and Drama, Wells emphasizes the disparity between the two situations,

but he also shows that performing a play can sometimes drift away from the original text so much

that the initial effects are lost. About a performance based on A Midsummer Night's Dream from

1816, William Hazlitt writes: “All that is fine in the play, was lost in the representation. The Spirit

was evaporated, the genius was fled; but the spectacle was fine” (S. Wells, Introduction 9). A fact

that must not be ignored is that “the effect of the play in performance depends partly on the

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audience, too” (S. Wells, Literature and Drama 4). Consequently, for a better understanding of the

original intentions and effects of Shakespeare's plays, “the normal Elizabethan stage conventions

must be understood and accepted” (Pafford li).

A Midsummer Night's Dream is a romantic comedy, a type of comedy that deals “mainly

with the follies and misunderstandings of young lovers, in a light‐hearted and happily concluded

manner which usually avoids serious satire” (Baldick). In addition, A Midsummer Night's Dream

also features elements of farce, which “inspires hilarity mixed with panic and cruelty in its audience

through an … improbable series of ludicrous confusions, physical disasters, and sexual innuendos”

(Baldick). Bottom's ass-head qualifies as such a physical disaster. The Routledge Dictionary of

Literary Terms states, moreover, that farce “seeks to demonstrate the contiguity of the logical and

the illogical,” an effect often felt in the play. The fact that the fate of characters belonging to this

world (Hermia, Lysander, Helena, and Demetrius) is affected by mythological creatures and their

powers represents an example of that effect: the illogical of fantasy mingles with the logical of

reality. Thus, Lysander becomes so confused that he thinks the reasoning of his affected mind

depicts reality:

Not Hermia but Helena I love.Who will not change a raven for a dove?The will of man is by his reason swayed,And reason says you are the worthier maid.Things growing are not ripe until their season;So I, being young, till now ripe not to reason. (A Midsummer Night's Dream 2.2 119-124)

Furthermore, there are also a few instances of burlesque, “a kind of parody that ridicules some

serious literary work either by treating its solemn subject in an undignified style or by applying its

elevated style to a trivial subject” (Baldick). The tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe represents the

burlesque episodes in the play.1 And, these particular genres (romantic comedy, farce, burlesque,

fairy story) fit together into the structure of festive comedy. Then, in accordance to the festive

atmosphere, Shakespeare builds the plot as “a pattern, a figure, rather than a series of human events

1 These episodes have become the focus of attention for certain critics who, consequently, disregarded the rest of the play. Naturally, focussing on only one aspect of the play distorts its original intentions. Vickers gives a full account of the situation (406).

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occasioned by character and passion, and this pattern, especially in the moonlight parts of the play,

is the pattern of a dance” (Barber 128). Such a strong visual element certainly affects the general

interpretation of the play.

Apart from the genres already mentioned, A Midsummer Night's Dream also presents some

shadows of tragedy. In experimenting with the conventions of comedy and tragedy, Shakespeare

often brings elements from one genre to the other. In this case, tragedy manifests itself through the

tragic tension or the potential for tragedy. This tension results from placing tragic characters –

Lysander and Hermia – in comic situations. They are virtuous young people whose love is real and

powerful and who are in a difficult situation, which has the potential of turning their story into a

tragedy. All through Act 1 Scene 1, their elevated speech in verse portrays them as reasonable, high

standing, and intelligent. Also, the fact that they are indeed right for each other and have a

harmonious relationship can be observed in their duet (in performance, this would have an even

stronger effect in showing them as equals, two parts of the same whole):

LYSANDERBut either it was different in blood –

HERMIAO cross! – too high to be enthralled to low.

LYSANDEROr else misgraffèd in respect of years –

HERMIAO spite! – too old to be engaged to young.

LYSANDEROr else it stood upon the choice of friends –

HERMIAO hell! – to choose love by another's eyes. (A Midsummer Night's Dream 1.1 135-


At this point, the two characters and their situation qualify for tragedy, but the play evolves into a

comedy. Indeed, the audience can soon see them in some rather amusing states, with Lysander

passionately declaring his love for Helena and claiming to hate Hermia; however, the initial way in

which they are perceived cannot simply disappear. “Merchant quotes Christopher Fry in The

Critical Idiom: “If the characters were not qualified for tragedy, there would be no comedy and to

some extent I have to cross the one before I can light on the other” (13). Furthermore, this tragic

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tension is maintained by a broken comic convention, that of the audience being in a superior

position towards the characters. Because Lysander and Hermia do not determine the misfortune that

happens to them, the spectators cannot consider their difficult situation easy or clear. There is no

better alternative to their actions, and they are sympathetic characters easy to appreciate not


With the mechanicals' play, Shakespeare does not only diversify the range of genres in the

play, but he also draws attention to the state of art of his own play. This parody questions the

validity of drama itself. According to the Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms, the tragedy of

Pyramus and Thisbe “mocks the traditions of interludes.” However, by demonstrating the ridiculous

result of a tragedy written and played by hard-working men, Shakespeare also shows that dramatic

art is not a simplistic form of entertainment which can be produced by anybody. The contrast

between A Midsummer Night's Dream and Pyramus and Thisbe evinces the fact that drama is a

form of art that needs professionals as writers and actors in order to have true value. The 'meta'

quality of the play is emphasized furthermore by references to its dreamy feeling:

If we shadows have offended,Think but this, and all is mended:That you have but slumbered hereWhile these visions did appear.And this weak and idle theme,No more yielding but a dream,Gentles, do not reprehend. (A Midsummer Night's Dream 5.1 413-419)

Acting as “a bridge between stage and audience” (Gay 8) in his role as clown, Robin reminds the

spectators that what they have seen here was only an artistic fabrication. Immediately, this

awareness changes the way actions and characters are interpreted: one effect of excusing the play as

simply fictional is the concealment of its power, as Willson argues (147-148).

“In many of these plays [Renaissance comedies] what might look like a comic situation

becomes the occasion for a debate, creating a play not of intrigue, but of ideas” (Leggatt 4). This

can be observed when looking at the events happening in the wood: the chaos caused by human

folly (for example, Demetrius's mad chasing after Hermia) and comic mischief (Puck bewitching

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Titania, Lysander, and Demetrius) alike brings forth ideas about love, truth, and illusions. The

irrationality of what happens there is hinted earlier in the play in “Demetrius's pun on an

Elizabethan sense of 'wood', which could also mean 'mad'” (S. Wells, Introduction 26); this sense of

madness adds to the illusory feeling of the play. The play investigates repeatedly the borderline

between illusion and reality: the mechanicals are lost in their own illusion, thinking that everyone

else will find their performance equally realistic (realistic enough to make them believe Snug really

is a lion); Titania and the lovers are trapped in an illusion of emotions; and even the environment

seems unreal:

DEMETRIUSThese things seem small and undistinguishable,Like far-off mountains turnèd into clouds.HERMIAMethinks I see these things with parted eye,When everything seems double. (A Midsummer Night's Dream 4.1 186-189)

Moreover, “the notion of a dislocation between the senses, and between the senses and the brain, is

recurrent” (S. Wells, Introduction 27). Bottom says: “The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man

hath not seen, man's hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor my heart to report, what

my dream was” (A Midsummer Night's Dream 4.1 208-211). Although the situations are amusing or

even ridiculous, they fuel in the spectators the consideration of some more abstract notions; by

noticing the false realities with which the characters confront themselves, the audience meditates on

the ideas of madness and illusion. And this is a necessary phase in the development of the play

because as it all happens in the wood, “a place of liberation, of reassessment” (S. Wells,

Introduction 24), it will lead “through a stage of disorganization to a finally increased stability” (S.

Wells, Introduction 24).

The Winter's Tale is a rather controversial play, seen as either a weaker play or one of the

greatest Shakespeare ever wrote. According to Pafford, the disparity of opinion comes often from

the fact that some critics forget that this is “a work of art composed to give pleasure from the stage”

(Pafford li). He goes on to explain that by doing so, the loose ends of narrative plot which have

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been picked up by critics (for example, why did Paulina know about Leontes's plan to poison

Polixenex) and the apparently weak motivations (such as the reason behind Leontes's jealousy)

would become unimportant because, on the stage, “these things do not worry an audience; they

cannot indeed be noticed in the quick movement of the play” (lii). Nevertheless, even with these

obstacles eliminated, the characters in The Winter's Tale still classify as intriguing and have the

potential of changing certain opinions in their Renaissance audience. Part of their complexity comes

from the mixture of genres and styles. The play “can be called a romantic tragi-comedy, but it has a

strong element of realism in plot, incident, character, and language” (Pafford l); it creates “a picture

and interpretation of life which is deeper than mere verisimilitude” (Pafford l). Consequently, “what

some feel to be the dream quality of the play largely arises from the fact that a drama of emotional

and spiritual strife of characters who are very much of this world and who are frequently in

domestic settings, is superimposed on, or rather inextricably mingled with a fairy story” (Pafford


The fable element of the play, as Pafford shows, manifests itself through those aspects of

plot that can also be found in commonplace folklore: the abandoned baby of noble origin who is

raised by common people before being reunited with the biological parents, the lover-prince who

pretends to be a simple countryman, the royal parents opposing a seemingly unfit match for their

child, the faithful wife accused with adultery, and so on (lxiii). But, using these fable structures,

Shakespeare builds a realistic world of human emotions where vices and virtues can be disclosed

and analysed. “There is a strong web of realism running through the warp of romance” (Pafford

lxvi). The consequence of this interesting mixture of romance and realism, as well as of comedy and

tragedy, is reflected in the nature of characters. Characters “must not be regarded wholly as

individuals but largely as vehicles carrying ideas and themes and so acting as pointers to indicate

the direction of interest that a play compels” (Pafford lxxi). Thus, Leontes becomes a vehicle for

Shakespeare to show the manifestation of mad jealousy (Pafford lxxi).

The Winter's Tale demonstrates the importance of bringing together the two principles,

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feminine and masculine, and of allowing both the female and the male logic to manifest in order to

achieve order and stability. The play begins with the domination of the male logic for Leontes has

unrestrained power to convict Hermione without proof, throw a damned fate upon his fragile son,

and abandon his infant daughter to death. Moreover, his views turn to hatred of women and reflect

Puritan principles of the time:

To be full like me: yet they say we areAlmost as like as eggs; women say so,(That will say any thing): but were they falseAs o'er-dy'd blacks, as wind, as waters; falseAs dice are to be wish'd by one that fixes (The Winter's Tale 1.2 129-133)

Thus, male logic works in complete exclusion of the female one and acts through the medium of

jealousy. “And the play demonstrates the harm that this may do not only to persons other than the

one overcome by the evil but to that person himself” (Pafford lxiii). The destruction caused by this

evil happens fast, Leontes being thrown almost straight away into the fires of jealousy; his supposed

lack of motivation, hence, makes sense because it enhances the impression of how fast evil can

strike. But healing happens slowly, and a lot of time has to pass until, at last, the play ends with “the

triumph of resolute noble womanhood” (Pafford lxiii). Nevertheless, although a female logic

dominates the second part of the play, it admits inclusion of the male logic, too (Paulina helps

Leontes to reform). Further on, such a triumph is achieved by the combination of three female

characters (representative of three different dramatic genres) who, when considered separately, do

not necessarily produce the same strong effect. Hermione, who has the qualities of a tragic

character, possesses “strength of spirit” (Pafford lxxiii), “dignity and deep generosity” (Pafford

lxxiii), “power of integrity and courage” (Pafford lxxiv), and “clearness of … mind and speech”

(Pafford lxxiv). Paulina, whose unchanging resolute spirit labels her as a comic character, is “loyal,

resourceful, spirited” (Pafford lxxiv), having a sound judgement and a presence that commands

respect. Perdita, a character of romance, personifies “virtuous charm, grace, and beauty” (Pafford

lxxvi), and “her speech is charged with human experience” (Pafford lxxvii). Together, they

represent a feminine ideal. And, even though “feminism as we know it did not exist in

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Shakespeare's time” (Vickers 331), The Winter's Tale clearly demonstrates the playwright's

understanding of human nature in its complexity. In view of these things, how can H. Wells's

opinion that the play lacks “the weight and sincerity of the earlier work” (112) be true?

Another major theme in The Winter's Tale is justice which represents one of “the chief

concerns of moral philosophers” (Campbell 97) in the Renaissance. But, in this case, “the thrust of

the play moves beyond strict justice to a world where forgiveness and mercy operate” (Moseley 57-

59). Matthews also notices that although “the threefold pattern of Sin and Judgement followed by

Redemption … persists to the end of his creative work” (179), Shakespeare partially renounces “the

conception of eternal damnation” (179) in favour of “a faith in the continual reawakening of the

earth's fertility and of human love” (179). This can be clearly observed in The Winter's Tale where

the pastoral tradition, with its romanticized images and “themes of fulfilled love … indictment of

war … faith and troth” (Cooper 170), magnifies this hopeful resolution and argues for “the

continuity of life and love” (Vickers 150). Moreover, the interpretation of a character such as

Leontes can be manipulated by Shakespeare's clever use of genre: instead of a permanent

punishment for his sin and no chance of salvation, the generic principles of the pastoral allow for

his redemption and return to a happy life.

This essay has looked at how Shakespeare's use of genre conventions, as well as his

experimentation with that generic material, complicates the way in which characters and actions are

interpreted. A Midsummer Night's Dream combines romantic comedy, farce, burlesque, fairy tale

and, through an alchemical process of transmutation, turns them into a unity of high artistic value:

the play brings forward philosophical concepts about illusion and reality, love, and even the creation

of art. Although also classified as comedy, The Winter's Tale works in quite a different way than A

Midsummer Night's Dream. Here, Shakespeare creates a realistic dream-like world where evil

strikes and time mends; he builds characters that belong to different genres, and then by making

them interact, he produces unexpected effects which are naturally accepted due to the induced

generic expectations. In conclusion, comedy is as powerful a medium as tragedy, and combined

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with Shakespeare's ingenious experimentation of genres, it leads to strong and memorable

characters, linguistic artistry, and the perfect vessel for Shakespeare's play of thought.

(3300 words)

Works Citedpg. 10

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___. The Winter's Tale. Ed. J.H.P. Pafford. London: Methuen, 1963. Print.

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Barber, C.L. Shakespeare's Festive Comedy. Princeton: Princeton, 1972. Print.

Campbell, Lily B. Shakespeare's Tragic Heroes. London: Methuen, 1961. Print.

Childs, Peter and Roger Fowler. The Routledge Dictionary of Literary Terms. London: Routledge,

2006. Web. 2 Jan. 2014.

Cooper, Helen. Pastoral: Medieval into Renaissance. Ipswich: Brewer, 1977. Print.

Gay, Penny. The Cambridge Introduction to Shakespeare's Comedies. Cambridge: Cambridge UP,

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Hillman, Richard. Self-Speaking in Medieval and Early Modern English Drama: Subjectivity,

Discourse and the Stage. London: Macmillan, 1997. Print.

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Merchant, W. Moelwyn. The Critical Idiom: Comedy. London: Methuen, 1972. Print.

Moseley, Charles. “The Literary and dramatic contexts of the last plays.” The Cambridge

Companion to Shakespeare's Last Plays. Ed. Catherine M. S. Alexander. Cambridge:

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Cambridge UP, 2009. 47-69. Print.

Pafford, J.H.P. Introduction. The Winter's Tale. By William Shakespeare. London: Methuen, 1963.

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Vickers, Brian. Appropriating Shakespeare: Contemporary Critical Quarrels. London: Yale UP,

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Wells, Henry W. Elizabethan and Jacobean Playwrights. Westport: Greenwood, 1975. Print.

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___. Literature and Drama. London: Routledge, 1970. Print.

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