This post begins and ends with two comedies in which Shakespeare unleashed the full force of his imagination on the space of the stage: A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest. Both of these plays have plots not directly derived from any known source; in this sense they are the fruits of his personal fancy. Both plays are richly stocked with supernatural beings, and as a result invoke a fear of the stage – and in particular theatrical comedy – which was a real and active force throughout Shakespeare’s lifetime. Both plays pit the self-centred imaginative visions of powerful men and women against what might be called the collective imagination of a community; the kind of collective imagination that makes theatre possible, as audiences accede to the players’ invitation to share their dreams, to help them populate the stage with beings from ancient history, or spirits, or the inhabitants of far-off countries, or of countries that don’t exist at all. I’d like to consider, in fact, Shakespeare’s preoccupation with the workings of the imagination in his comedies; and I’d suggest that the imagination itself is his topic in many of them, furnishing him with the material for their comic plots and drawing attention to the complex ways the imagination works in the actual communities of early modern England and Europe.
What was the imagination, then, for an English playwright of the sixteenth century? It was the part of the mind that formed images of things not actually present; a faculty located in the front part of the brain just behind the eyes, where information from the five senses was gathered in chaotic profusion before being sorted by the understanding and stored away in the carefully catalogued archives of the memory, which lay in the capacious area at the back of the head. The imaginative space was closely associated with the faculty called wit or natural intelligence, which is responsible for banter, improvisation, trickery and other functions that don’t involved the deployment of the meticulous and scholarly understanding. The most vivid Elizabethan representation of the imagination comes in Spenser’s epic poem The Faerie Queene, the first three books of which were printed in 1590, five years before the probable date of the first performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In the second book the personification of the imaginative faculty is named as Phantastes, a gloomy young man with a ‘working Wit’, ‘bent hollow Beetle brows’ and ‘sharp staring eyes / That mad or foolish seem’d’, whose room is painted with bizarre and colourful images:
Some such as in the World were never yet,
Ne can devised be of mortal Wit:
Some daily seen, and knowen by their Names,
Such as in idle Fantasies do flit;
Infernal Hags, Centaurs, Fiends, Hippodames,
Apes, Lions, Eagles, Owls, Fools, Lovers, Children, Dames.
The air of this room is full of flies, which annoy visitors by buzzing in their eyes and ears. These insects, the poet informs us, are
[…] idle Thoughts and Fantasies,
Devices, Dreams, Opinions unsound,
Shews, Visions, Soothsayes, and Prophecies;
And all that feigned is, as Leasings, Tales, and Lyes.
The picture Spenser gives us here perfectly embodies the profoundly ambiguous attitude early modern people had to the imagination. On the one hand, Phantastes or the fancy is one of the three seminal functions of the brain, especially useful for conjuring up images of the future and enabling a person to prepare herself to face it. On the other hand, the fancy is dangerous. Far from being playful and pleasant, Spenser depicts the man with a ‘working Wit’ as tormented by the ‘agonies’ of what we would now call depression, and this is because the mass of images by which he is surrounded have a political impact on him; they generate idle thoughts which in turn give rise to ‘opinions unsound’, ‘soothsayes, and prophecies’. Prophecies were widely associated in the sixteenth century with plots and insurrections, which were sometimes referred to as imaginations – rebellious actions undertaken on the basis of irresponsible conjecture or non-existent grievances; while ‘opinions unsound’ invokes religious heresy, which for Spenser could encompass anything from Catholicism to radical Protestantism, either of which could spawn rebellion. Spenser’s Phantastes, then, is a political troublemaker rather than an entertainer; making things up invariably leads to making trouble; and Spenser himself seems to have been tormented by a kind of double standard, impelled by his own teeming fancy to imagine the longest and strangest poem in the English language while profoundly distrustful of the imagination itself as a breeding-ground for the flies of religious and political dissent.
The early modern period shares Spenser’s double standard. It’s the most imaginative era of English (and Scottish) history in terms of architecture, internal decoration and clothing fashions as much as of poetry and drama; yet it’s also a period that spawned the most virulent attacks on the products of the imagination. One influential theorist of poetry, George Puttenham, drew a clear distinction between two different kinds of imagination: euphantasy, which is the ability to represent ‘the best, most comely and beautiful images or appearances of things to the soul and according to their very truth’; and phantasy or the phantastic, which generates non-existent things in the mind and thus breeds ‘Chimeras and monsters in man’s imaginations, and not only in his imaginations, but also in all his ordinary actions and life which ensues’. In other words, for Puttenham the job of the poet is to represent only what is or what has been – to write not just realistically but historically; whereas representing non-existent subjects in poetry is a sure path to monstrous action (and as a passionate royalist Puttenham would have seen any form of social dissent as more or less monstrous). The poet Sir Philip Sidney, by contrast, whose Apology for Poetry came into print around the time A Midsummer Night’s Dream was first performed (1595), identifies making things up as the defining function of poetry, which for him is a term that means fiction and can refer equally to verse, drama or prose. This means that the poet has a licence, in Sidney’s view, to be utopian (and More’s Utopia is one of the few texts by English writers he writes of with approval):
Only the poet, disdaining to be tied to any such subjection, lifted up with the vigour of his own invention, doth grow in effect into another nature, in making things either better than Nature bringeth forth, or quite anew, forms such as never were in Nature, as the Heroes, Demigods, Cyclops, Chimeras, Furies, and such like: so as he goeth hand in hand with Nature, not enclosed within the narrow warrant of her gifts, but freely ranging only within the zodiac of his own wit.
For Sidney the liberation of the inventive wit from the chains of what exists, of crude hard fact, is to be celebrated rather than condemned, as is the poet’s capacity to act as a prophet, anticipating better modes of life than the ones that currently obtain on earth. The fiction maker’s free ‘ranging […] within the zodiac of his own wit’ – his refusal to be constrained within the limits of the real – makes him the ultimate resistance fighter against the forces of tyranny. Sidney and Puttenham stand at opposite political poles, although they view the capacity of the imagination to affect the world and its politics in very similar terms.
As you would expect, the early modern controversy over the imagination had a direct impact on the early modern theatre. For its opponents the stage was capable of awakening rebellious thoughts in the minds of spectators – especially the young; and such thoughts could range from sexual adventurousness to religious heresy to the seeds of political insurrection. The best of Elizabethan writers against the theatre, Stephen Gosson – who may well have been employed to write his polemics by the Lord Mayor of London – was particularly critical of actors for forsaking their true callings as trained craftsmen or tradesmen, as most of them were, to pursue an idle occupation: a shift from productive to non-productive labour which he saw as damaging to the society of which they were part:
in a common weal, if private men be suffered to forsake their calling because they desire to walk gentlemanlike in satin and velvet, with a buckler at their heels, proportion is so broken, unity dissolved, harmony confounded, that the whole body must be dismembered and the prince or the head cannot choose but sicken.
For Gosson, ‘Plays are the inventions of the devil, the offerings of idolatry, the pomp of worldlings, the blossoms of vanity, the root of apostasy, the food of iniquity, riot and adultery’; and there were many Elizabethans who agreed with him, forming a vocal anti-theatrical lobby whose actions eventually brought about the closure of all playhouses in 1642. The players of course hit back at their detractors, mocking them on stage in plays and in the satirical song-and-dance routines known as jigs. It was partly in response to this controversy that the court office of the Master of the Revels – originally just the man who organised entertainments for the Queen, like Philostrate in the Dream – was in 1582 extended to include the censorship of plays. In fact, the Master of the Revels in Shakespeare’s time, Edmund Tilney, seems to have been responsible for preventing the performance of a play in which Shakespeare had a hand, Sir Thomas More, whose topic, ironically, was the writer of Utopia – the man held up by Sidney as the best English example of the freedom of the poet to oppose tyranny and imagine a better world. Many of Shakespeare’s contemporaries were imprisoned for falling foul of the regulations governing plays in the period, though Shakespeare wasn’t one of them. All the same, he remained interested throughout his life in the way the authorities seek to control their subjects’ imaginations, while imposing their own particular imaginative visions on the state and its inhabitants with all the tools at their disposal. A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest in particular foreground this competition between the authoritarian and the communal imagination, and in the process evolve into manifestos for the playwright’s theory of the theatre at the beginning and end of his extraordinary career.
Both plays are comedies – most simply defined as plays that have a happy ending, and whose happy ending is never seriously in doubt on account of their prevailing tone, often described metaphorically (and punningly) as light. It’s no accident that Shakespeare’s two most vividly imaginative plays should have been comic. It’s comedies that drew the most vehement opposition from the anti-theatrical lobby; Stephen Gosson saw laughter as both infectious and addictive, leading those who experience it to seek more of the same and thus increasingly to relinquish control over their bodily functions and their moral and social responsibilities. For the early modern period comedy had two faces, just as the imagination did. On the one hand it was associated with physical and mental lightness, improvisation, trickery, disguise, wordplay, desire, laughter and youth – all things that can bring harmless pleasure to those who experience or witness them; they can even serve as medical therapy, as the comedy of The Taming of the Shrew is supposed to do for the ‘brainsick’ tinker Christopher Sly. On the other hand comedy evoked transgression, devilry, thievery, falsehood, sex, mental disorder and the corruption of the young. The association of the comic with devils and evil spirits, in particular, was actively encouraged by the players themselves. In the interludes or allegorical plays that dominated the stage in Shakespeare’s youth the devil figures, known as vices, were the main source of humour, being played by famous clowns and becoming so popular with audiences that some interludes were entirely populated by vices, the virtues having been evicted as intolerable bores. The presence of spirits in Dream and Tempest, then, could be seen both as a reference to this old theatrical tradition and as a deliberate and open provocation of the theatre haters. The very fact that these spirits are not represented as particularly devilish (although the idea of devilry is directly invoked in both plays) – that they are in fact attractive and sometimes funny – would have enraged the more morally rigid among Shakespeare’s enemies, an example of the playing with hellfire that theatrical comedy reveled in.
The Dream and The Tempest have spirits in them, then, but they also contain monsters: a man with an ass’s head and a native islander who is constantly referred to as deformed and monstrous. As we heard, for George Puttenham the imagination could conjure up monsters of all kinds if used to visualize things that don’t exist, made-up things. In both these plays, though, Shakespeare suggests that the real monsters are human beings: the tyrants who treat their subjects as slaves or playthings; the male lovers who treat their women as objects to be discarded at will; the parents who impose their will on their children regardless of the child’s desires or needs. And the imagination, fantasy or fancy, that faculty that conjures up images of things not actually present, is an integral part of all of us – a seminal function of the brain, which is always at work in everything we do, painting the world and the people around us in strange, vivid colours, making monsters out of ordinary beings, driving us to acts of astonishing kindness or dreadful atrocities. To frown on or dismiss the imagination, Shakespeare suggests, is to turn our backs on an integral part of ourselves – and such ill-considered negligence will always result in the imagination taking its revenge, as the clown Feste takes his revenge on the fun-hating steward Malvolio.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream embodies the ambiguous Elizabethan attitude to both comedy and the imagination in its title. It’s a self-consciously light piece of work (small objects and beings, for instance, are everywhere in it), which opens with an exchange between two besotted lovers who are planning their wedding. The lovers also happen to be a King and Queen; so we learn at the start that even monarchs can choose to be not-so-serious or even irresponsible, especially at midsummer, which was a time set aside for pleasure and play in the early modern calendar (it’s widely assumed that the Dream was first performed at Midsummer, just as Twelfth Night was first performed on the final evening of the Christmas holiday). Yet the play’s also set at night, when spirits and misdirections abound, and on a particular night associated with festivities and quasi-pagan rituals which were roundly condemned by the more serious-minded of the church authorities. The dream of the title was an ambiguous thing, too. For Elizabethans a dream could be comforting, something sent by God to soothe tormented minds, or it could delude and terrorize the people it visits, making them imagine scenarios of a sexually, politically, or psychologically disturbing nature. In dreams, Thomas Nashe reminds us in his pamphlet The Terrors of the Night (1594), the devils of hell do their most effective work in tempting mortals. And this ambiguity extends itself to the love between the two monarchs we meet in the play’s first scene. Theseus and Hippolyta have very different attitudes to their prospective marriage. I said they were besotted with each other, but it’s only Theseus who shows true signs of infatuation; for him the four days until their marriage at the new moon seems like a lifetime, whereas for Hippolyta the days will pass very quickly, which implies she’s not half so eager for the impending ceremony as her fiancé.
Hippolyta has good reason for not being eager. The wedding has been set for the first day of the new moon, and the moon reminds her of her days as an independent Queen of the Amazon warrior women, before Theseus came into her life. She compares the new moon of their wedding day to ‘a silver bow / New bent in heaven’, which resembles her own Amazonian bow (the Amazons were famous archers), or the bow of the goddess Diana to whom the warrior women committed their lives. Diana is the goddess of chastity, not erotic desire, so the reminder may well be a painful one; Hippolyta is giving up her culture by marrying a man, on the very day when the moon is at its smallest and least potent. Moreover, she’s engaged to Theseus because she is a prisoner of war, as Theseus reminds her. ‘Hippolyta,’ he says,
I wooed thee with my sword,
And won thy love doing thee injuries;
But I will wed thee in another key,
With pomp, with triumph, and with revelling.
Actually, the terms pomp, triumph and revelling – especially triumph – were linked in Elizabethan times with the celebration of military victories; and one might conjecture that Theseus’s marriage will double as a public display of the spoils of war, with Hippolyta the most splendid and valuable of these spoils. Marriage, then, in this first exchange of the play, is an unequal partnership between men and women, tainted by violence. And it’s notable that this has an effect on the imagination; the man and the woman involved imagine the next few nights (or predict the future, which for Spenser was a function of fancy) in starkly different terms, suggesting that their view of the world has been coloured, so to speak, by their different gender and experiences.
Theseus seeks to impose his view of the world on Hippolyta through the festivities he promises her – to make her feel good about her defeat and forced engagement. The same association of marriage with the forcible imposition of a man’s view of the world on a woman is made in the second part of this first scene, when old Egeus bursts in with his ‘complaint, / Against my child, my daughter Hermia’. In Egeus’s view, his daughter is guilty of having had her imagination captivated by a man he did not choose for her; Lysander stole her heart with the lightest of trifles, including poetry (‘verses of feigning love’) and useless objects (‘bracelets of thy hair, rings, gauds, conceits, / Knacks, trifles, nosegays, sweetmeats’) – in the process ironically using these light things to make the deepest ‘impression of her fantasy’, as he puts it, indenting or shaping it in his own image. For Egeus, Hermia’s crime is that she refuses to recognize herself as his possession: ‘she is mine’, he insists, to be used as he sees fit, and above all to have her mind impressed with the images he chooses to put there – in particular the image of the young man he favours as her husband, Demetrius. And Theseus agrees with him. Hermia’s father, he tells her, is the one who effectively created her, like a god, and as a result she should consider herself as ‘a form in wax / By him imprinted, and within his power / To leave the figure, or disfigure it’ [my emphasis]. She has no rights over the images she entertains in her fancy – no right to acquire them for herself or let them shape her as she wishes; they are to be supplied by her father, and the punishment for taking back her fancy for her own purposes is to be subjected to violence – refusal to obey her father will result in death or imprisonment in a nunnery. Hippolyta would recognize the choice between unwanted ‘love’ and violence immediately; it’s notable that she doesn’t say a word throughout this exchange between the men and the recalcitrant daughter.
Soon after the exchange, the ‘dream’ of the play’s title acquires a new set of associations. Hermia’s lover Lysander connects it with what he calls ‘true love’: reciprocal desire between two young adults, as against the arranged matches for economic or political purposes that were the norm for upper-class families in Shakespeare’s time. Speaking of their seemingly doomed attraction to each other, Lysander tells Hermia that mutual desire is made as evanescent and insubstantial as a dream by the culture that forbids it: ‘Swift as a shadow, short as any dream, / Brief as the lightning in the collied night’. The reference to lightning here also associates desire with lightness – both the brief flare of light in the dark and the notion of moral lightness which was attached to unauthorized erotic adventures in the period. The same notion is conjured up in Lysander’s lovely line ‘So quick bright things come to confusion’, where the word quick accommodates both the word’s modern meaning of swiftness (swift as lightning) and its older meaning of alive; true love is associated with death, the ultimate confusion of the living. It’s been argued by scholars that the Dream was written at around the same time as Romeo and Juliet, where the love between quick bright things ends in death and the darkness of a crypt. The Dream entertains the possibility of this ending for its lovers throughout its length, and although I think it’s never a serious possibility – the language and tone of the play are too consistently playful for this – Shakespeare makes sure we are always aware of it as the flip side of the kind of comedy to which he treats us.
The first scene of the play, then, sets up the plot that follows, which is a struggle for control of the fancy or imagination. Throughout the play it’s the imagination of the men that proves both most fickle and most forceful. Men seem able to change the object of their affection – the woman by whom their imaginations have been impressed or printed – with unnerving ease; and they also seem prepared to back up their perceived claim to that beloved object with brute force, no matter how fresh their attraction to her may be, no matter how radically their new claim contradicts the claims to other women they’ve staked in the past. This theme is anticipated in the first scene, too, in the changed affections of Demetrius, who ‘won the soul’ of Helena but has now transferred his fancy to her best friend Hermia. Later, when they enter the forest, Demetrius threatens Helena with violence if she continues to follow him, and tells her she now repels him – appears, in other words, as an entirely different being in his imagination, although she has of course not changed physically at all. In this he follows the example of his monarch. Theseus was a byword in Elizabethan times for male infidelity thanks to his long catalogue of abandoned lovers, from Helen of Troy to Ariadne of Crete. Shakespeare’s Athens is a man’s world, and the women have good reason to know it. Men shape and reshape real, living women in their imaginations according to whim, and women have no control at all over how men perceive them.
In this play the forest, too, is a man’s world, despite its traditional association with female power. Diana is a forest goddess, the goddess of the chase as well as of chastity, and the fairy queen Titania is named after Diana; but Diana’s worshipper Hippolyta was entrapped by male force, and the same thing happens to her supernatural counterpart. Her husband Oberon acquires a love-potion that takes control of her imagination, and uses it not only to shape her female fancy but also to underline the shiftiness of the male fancy, by making both Demetrius and Lysander transfer their affections from one woman to another – the magic of the potion merely serving to reassert men’s tendency to reimagine women. Oberon’s potion is dropped not into his victim’s food or drink but into her eyes, altering the impression those organs convey to the common sense – that part of the brain where the imagination operates – so that
The next thing then she waking looks upon
Be it on lion, bear, or wolf, or bull,
On meddling monkey, or on busy ape)
She shall pursue it with the soul of love.
The fact that the potion always takes effect while its victim is asleep, implying that it realizes in the waking world the fanciful absurdities of dreams, confirms that its operation is on the imagination or fancy – as does Oberon’s statement that its operation will fill Titania ‘full of hateful fantasies’ (2.2). The flower love-in-idleness is a weapon aimed at the fancy, and Oberon’s willingness to use it suggests how far he wishes to take control of the imaginative world with which the audience is presented on the playhouse stage.
Titania’s enforced change of fancy enables Oberon to gratify his own propensity for switching his loyalties. He uses the potion to ‘make her render up her page to me’ – forcing her to give him a ‘little Indian boy’ in her care for whom he has conceived a fancy, and for whose sake he has been willing for months to sacrifice his relationship with his wife. Without the intervention of any potion, then, Oberon is like Theseus the embodiment of fickleness – something Titania reminds him of when they first meet in the play; and though he says the same of her (she fancies Theseus, he claims, though she denies it), it’s clear that he is keen to shape those around him to conform with his changing fancies to a degree that no woman in the play is ever accused of.
Meanwhile, the attempts of women to avoid being shaped or trapped by the violent imaginations of men – especially powerful men – are conveyed through the background story of the flower whose juice yields the potion. Oberon first became aware of the plant’s properties when he saw Cupid shooting one of his arrows at a virgin queen – Elizabeth I, who may well have been in the audience when the play was first performed. Elizabeth’s Diana-like chastity was so great that Cupid’s arrow glanced aside from her impervious body and struck the flower instead, giving it the arrow’s own power to change people’s affections. Meanwhile Elizabeth walked on ‘In maiden meditation, fancy-free’. This could either mean that she was free from fancy altogether, or more probably (given Spenser’s assumption that fancy is an integral part of the human mind) that her fancy remained unimpressed and unimprisoned, ‘freely ranging only within the zodiac of [her] own wit’, as Sidney puts it, unbeholden to any more tyrannous male authority.
Other women in the play protect themselves from male efforts to impose their imaginative visions on them by restricting themselves to female society. Once again, this is embodied in the story of Oberon and Titania. Titania cherishes the little Indian boy because he is the son of one of her ladies, a ‘votress of my order’ – which makes her sound like a member of a formal all-female community – with whom she shared jokes and imaginative games (they enjoyed comparing the woman’s pregnant belly to the sails of passing ships). The woman died in childbirth, and Titania loves the child for her sake. It’s in the same scene that Elizabeth is referred to as a ‘fair vestal’ – a priestess of Vesta, Roman goddess of the household, whose servants were all women – and thus effectively enlisted in another all-female community. A third all-female community – a very small one – was formed by Hermia and Helena before men’s love set them at odds. The two girls, bound together by ‘sisters’ vows’, shared a mutual imaginative vision as well as a mutual affection: both ‘chid the hasty-footed time / For parting us’ (and remember here that Theseus did not share his view of time with his supposed lover Hippolyta); and both worked together on their embroidery ‘like two artificial gods’, deities of craftsmanship such as Arachne the weaver, to create ‘one flower’ while singing ‘one song’ in ‘one key’, each of these (pictures and songs) being images, in their own way, of something not actually present. Women’s communities in this play share a mutual imaginative vision, whereas men seek to impress their imaginative visions by force on other people.
If women share a collective imaginative space, so too do the Athenian men of the lower orders: the craftsmen or mechanicals, who are of the same social class as the Elizabethan actors who played them. Bottom and his fellows are of course comic in their conviction that the imaginative space they create on stage will deeply impress their courtly audience – that the spectators will run the danger, in fact, of confusing stage illusion with reality. In this, the craftsman-players share the anxieties of the Elizabethan theatre-haters about the potentially deleterious effect of their stagecraft, and they seek to circumvent the problem by drawing up a kind of imaginative contract with their auditors: they will introduce themselves by their own names and explain the fact that they are only representing lions, lovers, moons, walls and so on. In doing so, of course, they shatter the illusion altogether; but they also enlist the support of their courtly audience, who recognize their good will and consent to participate in it. The play in the final act involves the active imaginative participation of both craftsmen and nobility; and it’s Theseus, of all people, who recognizes this. ‘The best in this kind are but shadows,’ he tells Hippolyta as she laments the actors’ incompetence, ‘and the worst are no worse, if imagination amend them’; to which she replies, ‘It must be your imagination then, and not theirs’. But for the courtiers’ imaginations to work with the craftsmen, the craftsmen must first offer them material to work with. What we witness in the final act is the forging of a mutual imaginative space which stands in direct contrast to the colonizing male imagination of the play’s first half.
The craftsmen-players, then, offer a splendid defence of the comic theatrical imagination. For one thing, their performance breaks down the hard-and-fast distinctions between men and women that obtain elsewhere in the play. Bottom is as eager to play the female lead in their tragical comedy as he is to play the male protagonist or the lion, and Francis Flute wows the audience with his female death scene. For another, the lovers in it are utterly besotted with one another, as the lovers in the rest of the play are not. For a third, Bottom himself may well have won the theatre audience’s respect by the time he appears as Pyramus in Act Five. Transformed by Puck into the ‘hateful fantasy’ demanded by Theseus as a tool for tormenting Titania, Bottom with this donkey’s head behaves quite unlike a conventional monster. No Minotaur to be killed by some passing Theseus, he treats Titania and her followers with a courtesy Oberon has not so far shown her, and shares her dreams as her husband does not, falling asleep in her arms after willingly accepting her distorted view of him as true (not so distorted, perhaps, if it’s based on his qualities rather than his appearance). Even after waking he retains the impression of his night with the fairy queen, describing it as a ‘most rare vision’ and describing it – albeit in muddled terms – in a sentence that echoes the New Testament: ‘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 his heart to report, what my dream was’. The confusion of the senses here might remind us that the impressions of all the senses are what the fancy works on, while the echo of St Paul’s letter to the Corinthians reminds us that God’s kingdom, too, which is what Paul describes in that famous passage, is a place not actually present. Our only access to that perfect place is through the imagination, and it’s the mechanicals, and chiefly Bottom, who give the best indication of how the imagination can be used to anticipate the kind of collective experience a believer might hope to have in the world to come.
If the women and craftsmen in the play offer us glimpses of a collective or mutual imaginative space, as against the controlled imaginative space imposed on others by powerful men, we are also treated to glimpses of the delights and dangers of the wholly uncontrolled imagination through the tricks and errors of Robin Goodfellow. Robin is the spirit of wandering and hence of error (literally, erring or wandering), as we learn as soon as we meet him. When he meets a nameless fairy he asks her ‘whither wander you’, and she later points out that one of his traits is to ‘Mislead night-wanderers, laughing at their harm’ – an accusation Robin confirms while identifying himself as yet another wanderer: ‘Thou speak’st aright, / I am that merry wanderer of the night’. Robin is also associated with laughter and hence with comedy; he’s a comedy of errors in himself, and his errors are what lead to the clash between the Athenian lovers in the central scene of the play, as he accidentally squeezes Oberon’s juice into the wrong man’s eyes. He embodies, in fact, all the properties of comedy: he’s associated with laughter, with lightness (flitting round the earth at impossible speeds), with improvisation, trickery, disguise, wordplay, and desire (he plays most of his tricks, it seems, on maidens and lovers); also with transgression, devilry, thievery, falsehood, sex, mental disorder and the corruption of the young. Misleading people and disseminating error are what devils do, of course, and at one point Puck even seems to think of himself as a devil, as he warns Oberon that the dawn is approaching and suggests that they retreat from the light along with the other ‘Damned spirits’ who fear cockcrow. The theatre haters would have agreed with the implication here that any supernatural being, even when depicted comically on stage, could only be a devil; but Oberon contradicts both Robin and them, insisting that ‘We are spirits of another sort’ and adding, ‘I with the morning’s love have oft made sport’. The implication here that Oberon might have had an affair with the goddess of the morning, Aurora, would be nicely enraging to the players’ enemies; but his insistence on the good intentions of these particular spirits – of himself and his fairy companions – is borne out by the final effects of Robin’s wandering. Puck may lead the young lovers astray in the woods; he may confuse their senses, so that branches and bushes become groping claws and hungry bears; but he also leads them out of the maze again, ensuring that ‘all this derision / Shall seem a dream and fruitless vision’. His interference with the imagination is neither wholly controlled by his master Oberon, nor are its effects permanent – except in one case, since Demetrius’s eyes are never disabused of the impression, imparted by the flower’s juice, that Helena is an earthly goddess. This detail, too, could almost have been slipped into the play as a defence of the comic imagination; Demetrius’s continued enchantment is necessary if the play is to have a happy ending, and its good effects imply that any lingering imaginative impression left by comic theatre will be therapeutic rather than damaging to its spectators.
Robin is also associated with the community drama of the craftsmen, taking part in their performance both as auditor and actor (his main action, of course, is the spell that imposes an ass’s head on Bottom). In addition he’s a much more sympathetic Master of the Revels than Philostrate is. Philostrate is deeply reluctant to let the craftsmen entertain Theseus, but Robin enlists them at once as the main event in the entertainment he is staging for his own master, the King of Fairies. He is given the play’s epilogue too, which asks the audience to mend the play – to participate in shaping it, or reshaping what is wrong with it, like expert craftsmen – with their applause, the work of their hands (remember that Francis Flute is a bellows mender). It’s thanks to Puck, then, that the comedy ends by including Shakespeare’s spectators as an integral part of the collective imaginative space that has been forged or cobbled together in the final act. And it’s thanks to his interference that the lovers who were at first to have been impressed into the roles intended for them by Egeus and Theseus find themselves instead participating in the craftsmen’s show, along with Theseus and Hippolyta. Puck’s errors and improvisation, then, far from damaging anybody, save a woman’s life, and help to remind Theseus himself of the sheer attractiveness of an uncontrolled fancy.
The most famous speech about the imagination in the play – the most famous passage Shakespeare ever wrote about it – comes after the lovers have been found asleep in the forest, exhausted by their Puck-induced wanderings. When they wake from their sleep their dreams prove to have been therapeutic – to have healed them from damage and aggression; and it’s the spontaneous change of heart on Demetrius’s part, along with the strange story of the night’s proceedings, that prompts Theseus’s reflection on the nature of the fancy. ‘I never may believe / These antique fables, nor these fairy toys’, he tells Hippolyta, serenely unconscious of the fact that for the Elizabethan audience he himself is an ‘antique fable’. He goes on to set three kinds of people against the ‘cool reason’ he claims to champion – ‘The lunatic, the lover and the poet’ – and again seems serenely unconscious of the fact that he himself is supposed to be a lover, and therefore one of the unreasonable people he has just listed. ‘The lunatic, the lover and the poet,’ he tells his new wife,
Are of imagination all compact:
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold;
This is the madman. The lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt.
The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to hell, from hell to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
Such tricks hath strong imagination,
That if it would but apprehend some joy,
It comprehends some bringer of that joy:
Or, in the night, imagining some fear,
How easy is a bush supposed a bear!
For Theseus, then, the man who sees devils – ‘more devils than vast hell can hold’ – is a lunatic; that is, someone affected by the moon, whose constant changes were supposed in the sixteenth century to have a direct influence on the size and shape of the human brain. There are no devils in Shakespeare’s play, but the theatre haters would have seen them everywhere. Fairies, spirits, men with ass’s heads, Puck, even the pagan Theseus – all of these would have seemed devilish to the anti-theatrical lobby, who by seeing them in this way brand themselves as brainsick according to Theseus’s speech. They also identify themselves as close relatives of the ‘frantic’ lovers and playhouse poets they disapproved of, and just as deceived in their impressions of what they see; except that where lovers make something lovely out of something conventionally seen as ugly (‘Helen’s beauty’ from ‘a brow of Egypt’), the theatre haters make something monstrous out of nothing at all. The poet, too, employs his imagination in a positive way, giving a ‘local habitation and a name’ – substance, in other words, like the substantial bodies of the actors who speak the poet’s words – to a kind of ‘joy’ that didn’t exist before he thought of it (apprehending some joy he at once ‘comprehends some bringer of that joy’). Fear, on the other hand – such as the fear of bears or playhouses – is as insubstantial as the ‘joy’ given substance by the poets, and far less pleasant. Theseus, then, is well aware that the imagination can work in two ways, bringing fear or joy to its possessor; but both the joy and fear it generates are for him equally light and unbelievable – ‘fairy toys’, in other words. He articulates the ambivalent view of the imagination shared by many Elizabethans, but articulates it in such a way as to show that everyone shares this deceptive faculty, including himself, and that it’s both attractive and more or less harmless.
For Hippolyta, however, the imagination becomes something far more powerful than a ‘fairy toy’ when it is shared. Replying to her husband, she points out that the astonishing things told by the Athenian lovers about their night in their forest are strangely consistent, and that
[…] all their minds transfigur’d so together
More witnesseth than fancy’s images,
And grows to something of great constancy;
But howsoever, strange and admirable.
Something significant, in other words, is generated when many people imagine the same, non-existent thing together. That thing becomes what Hippolyta calls a wonder – admirable means to be wondered at – and its strangeness, its newness, promises to reshape the world by shaping a group or community’s view of the world. The theatre haters claimed that plays, and particularly comedies, made things happen, and Hippolyta concurs. The difference is that for her they make things better – mend them, in the term Robin Goodfellow uses in his epilogue.
I said at the beginning that the imagination furnished Shakespeare with both the central topic and the plot of most of his comedies. It seems to me that the Dream is typical of Shakespeare’s comic process in the way it pits the controlling imaginations of powerful men against the collective imaginations of the rest of the cast; and the same conflict dominates the major comedies that followed this seminal play. Much Ado about Nothing, for instance, tells the story of how Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon, conspires with his friends to shape the imagination of Benedick and Beatrice, making them see one another anew by making them believe each is secretly in love with the other. Don Pedro’s malevolent brother Don John then performs a similar trick on the prince himself, making him believe the innocent Hero has been unfaithful to her fiancé, his best friend Claudio. Don Pedro then teams up with Claudio to impress or impose their vision of Hero’s infidelity on everyone else, regardless of due process of law; and it’s only by another, positive counter-plot, whereby a group of Hero’s male and female friends team up to work collectively on Claudio’s imagination, that the situation is resolved. The high point of the counter-plot is Friar Francis’s description of how Claudio’s mind will be affected when he thinks Hero has died of grief as a result of his accusations against her:
When he shall hear she died upon his words,
Th’idea of her life shall sweetly creep
Into his study of imagination,
And every lovely organ of her life
Shall come apparell’d in more precious habit,
More moving, delicate, and full of life,
Into the eye and prospect of his soul
Than when she liv’d indeed. Then shall he mourn […]
And wish he had not so accused her –
No, though he thought his accusation true.
Notice the wonderful way the word ‘life’ weaves through this passage – ‘Th’idea of her life’ – ‘every lovely organ of her life’ – ‘full of life’ – ‘she liv’d indeed’; the imagination is a vitalizing instrument, bringing dead people back into the world in a better, lovelier form than when they left it, and healing the mourner in the process. Of course, Hero is not really dead, but it’s the collective conspiracy of her friends that first makes her seem so and then seems to bring her back to life, thus quasi-magically restoring life to the love affair that was broken by Don Pedro’s authoritarian imposition of his imagination on others.
The same combat between the authoritarian and the collective imaginations is present in a later play that brings a person back to life, The Winter’s Tale. At the beginning of the play Leontes finds himself imagining that Hermione’s verbal and physical playfulness is a sign of sexual misbehaviour; ‘Go play, boy, play,’ he tells their young son; ‘thy mother plays, and I / Play too, but so disgrac’d a part, whose issue / Will hiss me to my grave’. Convinced that what he has imagined is true and that she has slept with his friend Polixenes, he orders Polixenes’s death, Hermione’s trial, and his baby daughter’s exposure at sea, while forbidding his subjects to speak out on her behalf, and even overriding the unambiguous affirmation of her innocence by a divine oracle. Every aspect of communal life is in this way overthrown by his obsessive need to impress his vision on those around him. His rigid reimagining of his wife’s harmless playfulness puts an end to playfulness itself for sixteen years; and it’s only the return of laughter, unabashed desire, trickery and playfulness with the next generation that allows him and his kingdom to become a community once again. The signal of the return of the collective imagination is a wonder, of the kind Hippolyta noted in the strangely consistent tale told by the newly woken lovers. A statue of Hermione, the product of an artist’s imagination, comes to life in view of the whole cast, thus giving substance to an absurd ‘old tale’ (one of Theseus’s ‘antique fables’) in spite of either rigid law (which would forbid the magic that animates sculpture) or reason (which would deny the possibility of such a restoration). Leontes’s willingness to participate in this wonder, to believe in this old tale despite its apparent impossibility, marks his willingness to return to the collective life of which such tales are the ultimate symbol.
Finally, the last of Shakespeare’s magical comedies, The Tempest, begins with a banished Duke impressing his imaginative vision on a ship and its crew, and ends with his acceptance that he is part of a collective imaginative life which cannot be governed by any human authority. In the course of the play the imagination spawns both utopias (think of Gonzalo’s dream of an ideal island) and conspiracies (Antonio urges Sebastian to murder his brother and take his place on the throne of Naples by saying: ‘My strong imagination sees a crown / Dropping upon thy head’). The play might take as its epigram the words of the catch sung by the intoxicated commoners Stephano and Trinculo, ‘Thought is free’. And Prospero himself begins to acknowledge the complexity of the relationship between the real and the imagined when he concludes that we are all, without exception, ‘such stuff / As dreams are made on’, and that ‘our little life / Is rounded with a sleep’. This famous speech is the first indication in the play that he sees himself as allied with the rest of humanity. And given that he is indeed human, his hope of orchestrating on the playhouse stage or the imaginary island a happy ending to the story of his life, composed by himself and obediently acted out by others, at this point seems an absurd one. If everything is the stuff of dreams, including Prospero, then the Duke cannot have a hope of keeping all the different imaginative threads of the world under his control, not even by magic. The final scene does indeed provide a happy ending, as Prospero’s daughter Miranda expresses her delight in the ‘brave new world’ of human wonders with which she finds herself surrounded – her new young husband chief among them. But in this final scene, too, the conspirators Sebastian and Antonio show no sign of repentance, and even Miranda’s naïve enthusiasm suggests her future life at Naples may be full of danger. The wild unpredictability of Robin Goodfellow’s imagination is present at the close of the play, as well as the collective imagination that knits together communities.
The play’s epilogue, however, reinforces the notion that the whole performance has been a collaborative effort. Prospero asks the audience to work their magic by clapping, thus releasing him from the imaginative spell that binds him to the island by announcing the close of the theatrical festivities. Authority is here set aside and collective fancy takes its place; a fancy that includes the hope for a better future, in heaven perhaps, or in an earthly state that favours mercy over retribution: ‘As you from crimes would pardon’d be, / Let your indulgence set me free’. Spenser tells us in The Faerie Queene that Phantastes, the imaginative faculty, is about foreseeing possible futures. Shakespeare’s comic imagination foresees a range of social and emotional states which we might well wish to share – and which he invites us, in this epilogue, to help bring into being.
For lightness as a crucial element of Shakespearean comedy see R W Maslen, Shakespeare and Comedy, Arden Critical Companions (London etc: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2005). For Puck as a kind of devil see R W Maslen, ‘Dreams, Freedom of Speech, and the Demonic Affiliations of Robin Goodfellow’, Journal of the Northern Renaissance, Issue 1.1 (March 2009), pp. 129-44 (http://northernrenaissance.org/articles/Robin-GoodfellowbrRobert-Maslen/13). For the Utopian element in Shakespeare’s comedies see Kiernan Ryan, Shakespeare’s Comedies (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).