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We may presume the plot of this play to have been the invention of Shakspeare, as the diligence of his commentators has failed to trace the sources from whence it is derived. Steevens says that the hint for it was probably received from Chaucer's Knight's Tale.
“In the Midsummer-Night's Dream,” says Schlegel, “ there flows a luxuriant vein of the boldest and most fantastical invention: the most extraordinary combination of the most dissimilar ingredients seems to have arisen without effort, by some ingenious and lucky accident, and the colors are of such clear transparency that we think that the whole of the variegated fabric may be blown away with a breath. The fairy world here described resembles those elegant pieces of Arabesque, where little Genii, with butterfly wings, rise half embodied above the flower cups. Twilight, moonshine, dew, and spring-perfumes are the element of these tender spirits; they assist Nature in embroidering her carpet with green leaves, many-colored flowers, and dazzling insects; in the human world they merely sport in a childish and wayward manner with their beneficent or noxious influences. Their most lent rage dissolves in good-natured raillery; their passions, stripped of all earthly matter, are merely an ideal dream. To correspond with this, the loves of mortals are painted as a poetical enchantment, which, by a contrary enchantment, may be immediately suspended, and then renewed again. The different parts of the plot—the wedding of Theseus, the disagreement of Oberon and Titania, the fight of the two pair of lovers, and the theatrical operations of the mechanics—are so lightly and happily interwoven, that they seem necessary to each other for the formation of a whole. Oberon is desirous of relieving the lovers from their perplexities, and greatly adds to them through the misapprehension of his servant, till he at last comes to the aid of their fruitless amorous pain, their inconstancy and jealousy, and restores fidelity to its old rights. The extremes of fanciful and vulgar are united when the enchanted Titania awakes and falls in love with a coarse mechanic, with an ass's head, who represents, or rather disfigures, the part of a tragical lover. The droll wonder of the transmutation of Bottom is merely the transmutation of a metaphor in its literal sense; but, in his behavior during the tender homage of the Fairy Queen, we have a most amusing proof how much the consciousness of such a head-dress heightens the effect of his usual folly. Theseus and Hippolyta are, as it were, a splendid frame for the picture ; they take no part in the action, but appear with a stately pomp. The discourse of the hero and his Amazon, as they course through the forest with their noisy hunting train, works upon the imagination like the fresh breath of morning, before which the shapes of night disappear." *
This is a production of the youthful and vigorous imagination of the poet. Malone places the date of its composition in 1594. There are two quarto editions, both printed in 1600; one by Thomas Fisher, the other by James Roberts.
* Lectures on Dramatic Literature, vol. ii. p. 176.
Theseus, Duke of Athens.
HIPPOLYTA, Queen of the Amazons, betrothed to Theseus. HERMIA, Daughter of Egeus, in love with Lysander. Helena, in love with Demetrius.
OBERON, King of the Fairies.
the Clowns. MOONSHINE, LION,
Other Fairies attending their King and Queen. Attendants
on Theseus and Hippolyta.
SCENE. Athens, and a Wood not far from it.
A Room in the Palace of Theseus.
Enter THESEUS, HIPPOLYTA, PHILOSTRATE, and
Theseus. Now, fair Hippolyta, our nuptial hour
Enter Egeus, Hermia, LYSANDER, and DEMETRIUS.
1 Duke, in our old language, was used for a leader or chief, as the Latin dur.
2 The old copies read, “ This man hath bewitched.” 3 Baubles, toys, trifles.