Illusion and Dissolution
Gender and the Anti-theatrical Debate in A Midsummer Night's Dream


Although we might assume that playwrights would naturally defend the theater against the attacks of anti-theatricalists, many plays rehearse the very prejudices of their opponents.8 There are a few anti-anti-theatricalist writings, that is, defenses of the theater, but they are often strangely ambivalent about the theatricality they purport to defend. Jonas Barish writes that

The defenses of the stage that survive from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries tend to be feebler than the attacks on it. The defenders usually share the assumptions of their opponents. They concede in advance the Christian-Stoic ideal of constancy . . . They equate changeability with hypocrisy (117).

Thomas Heywood, for example, in An Apology for Actors (1612), proudly proclaims the power of the theater — through deception — by citing two examples of women who, reminiscent of the scene in Hamlet, murdered their husbands and revealed their guilt by watching theatrical productions which resembled the reality of their crimes.9 For these women, theatrical illusion is continuous with reality, and, according to anti-theatricalists, therein lies the danger. Although I think that A Midsummer Night's Dream does ultimately defend the theater and its use of illusion, in the scenes involving Lysander and Hermia and Demetrius and Helena, the play contains a marked ambivalence about its own theatricality and its effects on the female segment of its audience.10

Puck is often seen as the internal dramatist of A Midsummer Night's Dream. He manipulates the Athenian characters to perform in an elaborate plot. With the love-juice he paints on the eyes of Lysander and Demetrius, Puck creates for them illusory identities, which they perform before the disconcerted Hermia and Helena. Lysander and Demetrius become actors to the women's audience.11 In her first reaction to Lysander's performance, Helena chides him for his "mockery" (II.ii.123) and, sensing the danger to her well-being immediately removes herself from his presence. When Helena and Lysander meet again she begs him to give up his "cunning" (III.ii.128), to give up his illusory identity. As Demetrius enters, likewise anointed by Puck and provided with an illusory identity, Helena proclaims that both Lysander and Demetrius are not men, but rather "men . . . in show" (III.ii.151), who jest with her by "counterfeit[ing]" (III.ii.237) themselves. When Hermia enters she too immediately accuses Lysander of dissemblance: "You speak not as you think" (III.ii.191) she says. As the men's performance continues, the women become increasingly confused and agitated. Redirecting her rage from the male performers to her friend, Helena accuses Hermia of being a "counterfeit" and a "puppet" (III.ii.288). The women lash out at one another, nearly coming to blows. As reality and illusion collide, Helena sees illusion everywhere she looks, even within her best friend. Hermia is also unable to distinguish just what is jest, what is illusion. She must ask again and again. The men further befuddle matters, by repeatedly insisting upon their sincerity: "'tis no jest" (III.ii.280) Lysander says. They maintain that they are showing themselves as in deed they really are, that the illusion is real.

The ultimate consequence of the conflation of illusion with reality is that the women's absolute identities are destroyed. Hermia questions her own identity, when she asks "Am I not Hermia?" (III.ii.273) and is finally rendered silent by her confusion: "I am amaz'd, and know not what to say" (III.ii.344). Helena exhibits an even greater sense of disjunction, when she wishes to "Steal me a while from mine own company" (III.ii.436) as she says. Flustered and angry, the four finally each go their own way in the forest. Lysander and Demetrius lie down to sleep completely untroubled, whereas Hermia and Helena, only sleep after expressing their confusion about the performances they have witnessed and about who they are.

With Puck's antidote to the love-juice, finally, reality within this the main-plot of A Midsummer Night's Dream triumphs. The couples awake, still confused, but without "jealousy" and "enmity" (IV.i.244,245). The women are able to come to recognize the dual nature of illusion and reality and learn to prefer the waking world of reality to the illusory — and destructive — world of dreams. They come to exemplify the anti-theatricalists' arguments and finally all is corrected, all are what they seem. Three couples, not just the one, are wedded at the end of the play to blessings of fertility and, presumably, domestic — and civic — tranquillity ensues. The main-plot of the play seems to accept the anti-theatrical arguments that theatrical illusion is dangerous to women's absolute identity and overall well-being.