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


Such concern about the effect of the theater on women may stem from the increasing significance of women in the Renaissance theater audiences. As a sizable segment of the paying audience, playwrights and acting companies considered women's interests and feelings. Women's favor and goodwill were courted by playwrights in their prologues and epilogues to their plays.4 Playwrights often evince an insecurity that their plays will be found offensive to — and more importantly, by — women, who had the ability to lead the audience to hiss, or otherwise respond negatively to the production.5 Women were becoming increasingly more visible, and increasingly more significant, among the audiences of English Renaissance theater.6

In A Midsummer Night's Dream, the acting-company of mechanicals seek the favor of their female audience and at the same time evince anti-theatrical prejudices about the illusoriness of acting and its effects on the female members of their audience. They are constantly concerned about offending, or more to the point, frightening the "ladies" in the audience. Curiously, the mechanicals imagine their audience as only female. For example, when the lion's part is cast, they worry that the ladies will be so deceived by the actor-as-lion, and therefore frightened, that "they would shrike" (I.ii.76).7 Their concerns are exceptionally intense: they go so far as to imagine that the consequence of frightening the ladies "out of their wits" (I.ii.80), as they say, would be to send them all to the gallows. The price of displeasing and deceiving the female members of their audience, they are sure, is nothing short of their lives. Literally contriving to save his own neck, the enthusiastic Bottom, ready to play every part in the play, announces that as the lion he would "roar . . . as gently as any sucking dove . . . any nightingale" (I.ii.82-4), to ensure that the ladies are not frightened. Bottom, faced with the further problem that the ladies will be frightened by the drawn sword and the killing in the play, proposes a solution:

Write me a prologue, [he says] and let the prologue seem to say we will do no harm with our swords, and that Pyramus is not kill'd indeed; and for the more better assurance, tell them that I Pyramus am not Pyramus, but Bottom the weaver. This will put them out of fear (III.i.16-22).

In these lines, Bottom moves from worrying that women will be frightened by the staging of their play to worrying that he will seem to be what he is not. He worries that he will deceive — or perhaps even enchant — his female audience. Likewise, the ever-resourceful Bottom resolves the problem of the lion with the insertion of yet another prologue:

you must name his name, [he says] and half his face must be seen through the lion's neck, and he himself must speak through, saying thus, or to the same defect: "Ladies," or "Fair ladies, I would wish you," or "I would request you," or "I would entreat you, not to fear, not to tremble: my life for yours. If you think I come hither as a lion, it were pity of my life. No! I am no such thing; I am a man as other men are"; and there indeed let him name his name, and tell them plainly he is Snug the joiner (III.i.36-46).

The mechanicals, in fear of their lives, accept Bottom's proposals in order that they will not be guilty of what the anti-theatricalists warn against. They are careful not to preference their illusory identities as actors over their absolute identities and therefore hope to avoid enchanting the female members of their audience. We realize later, though, that Bottom's malapropism is more appropriate than he thinks; the mechanicals' insistence on avoiding theatrical illusion and injecting their production with reality is the play's defect, as we see when they perform their fractured version of Pyramus and Thisby for Theseus and the rest of his court in the final act of the play. The results are comical, and judging from the easygoing commentary of their audience, harmless. I will return to this point later to examine the women audience member's reactions to the play more closely. In this subplot it would seem that the anti-theatricalists' anxieties are completely innocuous; their concerns are therefore easily dismissed, and it ought to be business-as-usual in the theaters. Anti-theatricality does not, however, play so easy a role in the main plot of the play.