Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

Economies of Desire in A Midsummer Night's Dream

Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

Economies of Desire in A Midsummer Night's Dream

Article excerpt

OVER THE PAST TWO DECADES, scholars have grown increasingly interested in two seemingly-unrelated patterns of reference in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream (ca. 1596). On one hand, they have encountered a string of allusions to cross-species eroticism that, when taken collectively, may be read as a correlative to the play's language of patriarchal hegemony. On the other hand, they have discerned an undercurrent of sexual reference in the play that foregrounds various sorts of same-sex attachment. In the following pages, I aim to emphasize the structural complementarity of these two discursive patterns, to examine their common status as responses to the dominant figures of heteroerotic marital union in Shakespeare's comedy, and most particularly to investigate their relation to the exchange of love objects through which the play's various plots achieve their resolution. My general thesis is that the bestiality motif in A Midsummer Night's Dream parallels and inverts the play's various references to same-sex communities and attachments, and that both of these discursive patterns may be understood as a nervous projection of tendencies intrinsic to the play's understanding of gender difference and heteroerotic love.

Of course, this argument takes for granted a.) that Shakespeare's comedy does refer to bestiality so frequently that these references may be regarded as a motif unto themselves and therefore considered worthy of collective study, and b.) that the play refers in similar fashion to relations that might be described as homosocial, homoaffective, or even homoerotic. Since I assume these things to be so, and since the remainder of my argument depends upon these assumptions, it is best to begin by reviewing the evidence in their favor. Since this evidence has already been advanced elsewhere, I will present it here in condensed form.

To start with the former of these two assumptions, i.e., that A Midsummer Night's Dream develops a zoophiliac subdiscourse correlative to its more obvious concern with heteroerotic courtship and marriage: when Harold Brooks claims that Shakespeare's comedy presents men and women as "almost ... alien species," (1) he suggests how easily the play may accommodate a broad tradition of feminist criticism that views patriarchal formulations of gender difference as recapitulating the conventional opposition between nature and culture. This body of scholarship, perhaps most influentially embodied in feminist and ecocritical work like that of Sherry Ortner and Annette Kolodny, (2) suggests that masculine authority in the social sphere entails a compromised humanity on the part of women, who thus figure in cultural practice and cultural memory as a separate and constitutionally inferior order of created nature: perhaps not quite animals, but certainly not quite men, either. Likewise, Jan Kott's early work on the "sexual demonology" of A Midsummer Night's Dream has demonstrated the extent to which Shakespeare's comedy elaborates motifs of unexpected, transgressive erotic behavior. (3) To trace a pattern of zooerastic reference in the play, one need only combine these bodies of scholarly inquiry and apply them specifically to Shakespeare's representations of women and the natural world. (4)

If one does this, the play begins to exhibit a strangely persistent undercurrent of bestialized eroticism. From Titania's infatuation with the assified Bottom; through Helena's passionate plea to the disdainful Demetrius, "I am your spaniel, and, Demetrius, / The more you beat me I will fawn on you. / Use me but as your spaniel"; (5) to Bottom's histrionic desire to act the roles of both Thisbe and the Lion in "Pyramus and Thisbe" (I.ii.43-45; 58-60); to Puck's reassurance to the young lovers that "Jack shall have Jill, / Nought shall go ill; / The man shall have his mare again, and all shall be well" (III.iii.45-47); to the etymological derivation of Hippolyta's name; to Bottom's malapropic exclamation as Pyramus, "O wherefore, nature, didst thou lions frame, / Since lion vile hath here deflowered my dear? …

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