A Speculative Political Allegory in A Midsummer Night's Dream
Hunt, Maurice, Comparative Drama
Every so often commentators on Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's ream quote Bottom's judgment on his own "most rare vision" of the Fairy Queen--"Man is but an ass if he go about to expound this dream" (4.1.203-4)--with tongue-in-cheek reference to their own interpretive efforts. (1) Given the frequency with which Bottom's words have been invoked for this purpose, one can be excused for believing that the utterance has lost most of its value as a beforehand deflector of criticism against the commentator's argument. Yet if ever a commentator on A Dream risked appearing an ass to his or her reader, it would be the interpreter presumptuous enough to offer a reading of a topical political allegory in the comedy. That, however, is precisely what I intend to do in this essay. I have in my title termed the political allegory I shall unfold not only "a" political allegory in A Midsummer Night's Dream (thus admitting that another one might appear as or more viable), but also that it is a "speculative" allegory. I realize nevertheless that, unless an author has supplied a statement of allegorical intention akin to Edmund Spenser's letter to Sir Walter Ralegh concerning The Faerie Queene, all unfolded literary allegories, political or otherwise, are speculative. Still, my use of the word in my title and from time to time in my argument may in some readers' minds make me appear less an ass in my expounding of Shakespeare's Dream.
David Bevington in the late 1960s identified the largest obstacle to explicating a political allegory critical of Queen Elizabeth in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Citing Edith Rickert's "lock-picking type" of allegorical reading of the play (a 1920s interpretation about which I shall have something to say later), Bevington rejects it with a simple, shrewd observation: "Shakespeare's supposed concealment of the allegory [of Titania/Elizabeth] grossly in love with [Bottom/James VI of Scotland] will not serve, for if Elizabeth with her mastery of decipherment could not read the message it would fail of its purpose. The record seems clear that the play did not offend." (2) Setting aside for the moment the question of the plausibility of Rickert's equation of Bottom and the Scottish king, I want to question the assumptions underlying Bevington's judgment. He assumes that if a discernible allegory critical of Elizabeth exists in Shakespeare's comedy, it would have offended her; and if it offended her, a written record of the offense taken would have necessarily survived.
While Bevington's first assumption is certainly plausible, his second is debatable. It is likely that Elizabeth did not prosecute every author of a literary allusion to her rule that she suspected or knew was critical of it. If the allusion was notably oblique or cryptic, political prudence may have occasionally dictated her silence. The queen may have realized that crying out against every suspected critical allusion or allegory, when its author could defend himself by interpreting it according to a set of literal, harmless meanings, put her at risk of appearing to her subjects overly touchy, insecure in her monarchy. No record exists of her censure of Spenser for critically depicting in The Faerie Queene her treatment of Ralegh in the allegory of Belphoebe and Timias's relationship.
More importantly, Shakespeare possibly may have encrypted an allegory in A Midsummer Night's Dream not designed for Elizabeth's instruction, but for the amusing reinforcement of the political opinions of one or more earls and their coterie with influence over the playwright. Granted the danger entailed by such a hypothetical enterprise, Shakespeare might have been inclined to make the allegory especially dark, meant chiefly to be decoded and appreciated by a disaffected nobleman--who may have partly or wholly suggested it--and his "in-the-know" friends. Such an assumption is every bit as plausible as the belief that, if Shakespeare incorporated an allegory in A Midsummer Night's Dream, it was intended primarily for Queen Elizabeth's eyes and ears. …