Questions on Shakespeare’s Comedies
Shakespeare, William. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. (Norton Comedies, 3rd edition, pp. 395-453).
1. Act 1, Scene 1 begins with a conversation between Theseus, Duke of Athens and Hippolyta the Amazon Queen, a famous couple from Greek mythology. What is the story about them and their eventful coming-together? What model of gender relations does their presiding presence in the play suggest, and to what extent is that model borne out in this scene (and elsewhere in the play, especially if you are presenting on this question)?
2. In Act 1, Scene 1, Hermia’s father Egeus enters as a typical New Comedy-style senex iratus (angry old man). What specific demands does he make when he bursts onto the scene? What penalties does he threaten? How seriously are we to take his threats and, more generally, how should we understand the symbolic authority he represents?
3. In Act 1, Scene 1, what dilemma does Helena (Hermia’s childhood friend) confront in this first scene? What does she decide to do about it? How does she theorize the nature and power of love, and how does her theorizing relate to her own situation?
4. In Act 1, Scene 2, Peter Quince and his actors (workingmen all) make plans to rehearse their play. What is the occasion for this play: who is calling for it, and why? What sort of play will it be, in terms of its plot and major theme or themes?
5. In Act 1, Scene 2, how does Bottom the Weaver distinguish himself (for better or worse) from the other actors who are to take roles in Pyramus and Thisby? What is to be his role, and why, in your view, does he want to play several other roles as well? How does Peter Quince handle this troublesome fellow?
6. In Act 2, Scene 1, Oberon and Titania first appear. What kind of place is their fairy realm? What special powers do this couple have? To what extent are they like, and to what extent unlike, a human couple? What is the subject of their current discord, and what apparently motivates them to take the respective positions they do regarding this subject?
7. In Act 2, Scene 1, we meet Puck or Robin Goodfellow. Who is he, and what powers does he possess? What task is he charged to perform in this scene, and why?
8. In Act 2, Scene 2, what error does Puck make in discharging his responsibility as set forth by Oberon in the previous scene? Why does he make this mistake, and what are its effects?
9. In Act 2, Scene 2, what might account for Hermia responding as she does to Lysander’s advances? What assumptions do Hermia and Lysander seem to make in this scene regarding erotic attraction or love?
10. In Act 2, Scene 2, how, specifically, does Oberon bewitch his Queen Titania? Do some internet searching on the lore of the flower he uses to cast a spell over her — why is that flower particularly appropriate to the task, and how might its symbolism be connected to the play’s broader thematic concerns?
11. In Act 3, Scene 1, what representational and audience-related concerns does Bottom raise with Peter Quince and his fellow actors concerning the action of Pyramus and Thisby? What is the basis of those concerns — why does Bottom worry about the things he specifies, and what plans do he and the others come up with to deal with them?
12. In Act 3, Scene 1, as mentioned above, Bottom manifests some anxiety about how certain things will be represented in Pyramus and Thisby and how the audience will take such representations. Theatrical realism is an issue that Shakespeare himself raises in his plays by means of prologue-speakers and main characters. Choose one such instance and discuss briefly how the issue is dealt with. (The prologue of Henry V is one possibility; so is Hamlet’s advice to the actors in the troupe that comes to Elsinore Castle to entertain him, or Feste the Clown’s song concluding Twelfth Night. But there are others.)
13. In Act 3, Scene 1, what magic does Puck work upon Bottom the Weaver? Why might Bottom be the most appropriate target of such magic? How does Bottom react to what one of his fellow actors calls his “translation” (i.e. his transformation)? How does Titania show her fondness for Bottom, and how does he react to her attentions?
14. In Act 3, Scene 2, what jealousies and hostilities beset Hermia and Helena as well as Demetrius and Lysander? How do Oberon and Puck manage the squabbling humans who have entered their territory? What does Oberon declare to be his chief desire, and how does he plan to achieve it?
15. In Act 4, Scene 1, Oberon says that his human visitors will take away nothing more from their strange experiences in the forest than “the fierce vexation of a dream” (67). The title of the play contains that word “dream.” What significance do you impute to the word — how is the play’s action similar in its movement and significance to a dream? In responding, you may also want to consider Act 5, Scene 1’s conclusion, in which Oberon’s fairy helpers bless the palace of Theseus and Hippolyta while they and the guests sleep.
16. In Act 4, Scene 1, Theseus and Hippolyta converse and await their wedding ceremony. During the conversation, how does Hippolyta strive to maintain her autonomy as they move towards this “institutional moment”? How does Theseus respond to this attempt?
17. In Act 4, Scene 1, how does Theseus handle Egeus’ newly repeated invocation of the law against Hermia — what new information frustrates Egeus’ angry demands, and what further declarations does Theseus make to complete the happiness of all except the angry old man?
18. In Act 4, Scenes 1-2, Bottom the Weaver muses on his wondrous transformation and then returns to his fellow actors. How does he construe what has happened to him? What use does he plan to make of the experience? Why do you suppose that he, alone of all the play’s human characters, has actually seen the fairies?
19. In Act 5, Scene 1, what does Theseus apparently think of the forest adventure he has heard recounted by Hermia, Lysander, Helena, and Demetrius? In speaking to Hippolyta before the performance of Pyramus and Thisby, what principles of literary appreciation does Theseus set forth? In what sense do his comments extend beyond the realm of art and into other areas of life?
20. In Act 5, Scene 1, how do Theseus and the other noble characters respond to the performance of Pyramus and Thisby put on by Peter Quince and his crew of artisans? Why does Theseus take so much pleasure in the performance in spite of its defects?
21. In Act 5, Scene 1, how does Puck’s epilogue connect the performance of Pyramus and Thisby and the noble audience’s reaction to it with the larger performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream? What privilege and responsibility does he grant Shakespeare’s actual audience? What seem to be the implications of this epilogue for the status of a play in relation to the world beyond art?
Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen, Walter Cohen, Suzanne Gossett, Jean E. Howard, Katharine Eisaman Maus, and Gordon McMullan, eds. The Norton Shakespeare: Comedies + Digital Edition. Third edition. New York: W. W. Norton, 2016. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93861-6.
Copyright © 2012 Alfred J. Drake