From the ridiculous to the sublime: Ovidian and Neoplatonic registers in A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Sarah Carter
Warwick University

Carter, Sarah. "From the ridiculous to the sublime: Ovidian and Neoplatonic registers in A Midsummer Night’s Dream". Early Modern Literary Studies 12.1 (May, 2006) 2.1-31<URL:>.


  1. A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1595) is a play about love and the codification of desire. The text plays with the conventions of romantic love and desire as sexual partnerships are shown to be forged in battle, magically controlled, thwarted by social systems and potentially tragic. Intertextual influences are discernible from multitudinous systems of thought. Though these include the prominent philosophical consideration of love of the Renaissance Neoplatonists, the presence of Ovidian registers, widely considered to be ‘counter-Plato’,[1] establishes a conflict of ideals within the text. This essay explores the relationship between divine, Platonic love and Ovidian bestial love in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It will consider the philosophical intention and early modern reinterpretation of inspirational material, as well as the reappearance of common mythological signifiers in the less ambiguous text of Thomas Heywood’s Love’s Mistress (1636). Myths are of course responsive to the forms and pressures of the time of their reproduction, and therefore A Midsummer Night’s Dream is interesting in its representation and interrogation of the heterosexual love-relationship within disparate constructs of the nature of love.

  2. At first glance, both Neoplatonic and Ovidian aspects of A Midsummer Night’s Dream can be noted. The ‘fairies’ represent the divine aspect of the play. They are ambiguous conglomerations of myth, demonstrated by the common Renaissance substitution of English folklore fairies for classical nymphs and goddesses. The communion of the divine with the mortal in the play points toward a demonstration of Neoplatonic philosophy. However, sexual infatuation of the divine for the mortal is common to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, as is the peripheral setting of the forest. The story of Pyramus and Thisbe is taken from Ovid (Metamorphoses 4. 55-168), and rarely is love considered using the linguistic codes of Neoplatonic ideals.

  3. The Neoplatonists place humanity between the divine and the bestial, between the extremities of sensual lusts and divine understanding. As Peter Bembo explains preceding his discourse on love in Baldassare Castiglione’s Il libro del cortegiano (1528): ‘… in our soule there be three manner waies to know, namely, by sense, reason, and understanding: of sense there ariseth appetite or longing which is common to us with brute beasts: of reason ariseth election or choice, which is proper to man: of understanding, by the which man may be partner with Angels, ariseth will.’[2] The aim of humanity should be to ascend to the divine and leave behind the sensual appetites associated with animals, and this is facilitated through love. The fourth book of The Courtier, based on Marsilio Ficino’s Commentary on Plato’s Symposium, explains that love is the desire for beauty. Earthly beauty is a refraction of Divine Beauty, so the desire for a beautiful person is a potential move toward communion with the Divine, the Platonic ‘One’. The mediation between divine and earthly love and beauty is explained in an appropriation of classical myth with the creation of two versions of the goddess Venus, Venus Coelestis and Venus Vulgaris. According to Neoplatonic thought the celestial Venus stimulates divine love and the latter is concerned with earthly, corporeal love and procreation. However, another side of the earthly Venus exploits humanity’s susceptibility to sensual desires. The two Venuses are attended by separate anthropomorphic ‘Loves’, amor divinus and amor vulgaris, both of which are, according to Ficino, ‘virtuous and praiseworthy’ in the pursuit of beauty.[3] There also exists, usually separated from ordinary amor vulgaris, bestial love, amor ferinus: purely physical, sensual desire .[4] The Neoplatonists thereby identify three ways of life, the chaste Contemplative Life, following divine love; the Active Life, following terrestrial ‘vulgar’ love; and the ‘Voluptuous’ Life, following bestial love, where contemplation or procreation is abandoned for sensual pleasure.[5]

  4. It is easy to discern how Ovid’s sexually liberal, sometimes facetious writings such as Amores, the Ars Amatoria and the Metamorphoses associate him with bestial love. Furthermore, many of the stories of the Metamorphoses literalise the metaphor of man’s bestial nature in metamorphosis and sexual bestiality. The sixteenth-century moralisers of pagan myth attempted to reconcile the Metamorphoses with a more virtuous philosophy hidden in the fantastic fables. Arthur Golding writes in his 1567 translation’s ‘Introductory Epistle’:
    For as there is no creature more divine than man as long
    As reason hath the sovereintie and standeth firme and strong:
    So is there none more beastly, vyle and devilish, than is hee,
    If reason giving over, by affection mated be.’

    However, this potential accordance with Neoplatonic theory remained secondary to Ovid’s salacious reputation.

  5. A Midsummer Night’s Dream opens with Theseus reminding Hippolyta how he ‘won thy love doing thee injuries’ (1.1.16-17), and Egeus’ anger at Hermia’s disobedience in not loving the man he chooses. Rebellion against regulation of desire through the patriarch is evident. However, neither is the play full of unrestricted Ovidian desire. Lysander articulates a key Neoplatonic conceit, described above, when attempting to convince Helena his love has refocused. ‘The will of man is by his reason swayed,’ he claims, ‘And, touching now the point of human skill, / Reason becomes the marshal to my will, / And leads me to your eyes’ (2.2.121-126). Unfortunately, reason and will have nothing to do with his desire for Helena’s beauty; he is drugged, as is Titania in her potentially Neoplatonic communion with Bottom. As Bottom later comments, ‘reason and love keep little company together nowadays.’ (3.1.127-8). Such light-hearted representations of Neoplatonism suggest a pastiche (rather than a mockery) of philosophical theory. The text could be said to be a dialogic exploration of the nature of love, and as such displays a range of style in both acknowledgment and repudiation.

  6. The metamorphosis of Bottom has clear predecessors in Ovidian metamorphoses, including the ass ears of Midas (Metamorphoses 11. 173-94), and in Apuleius’ second century novel, The Golden Ass. Apuleius’ novel raises conflicting arguments. Apuleius was a ‘Middle’ Platonist, and an important source for western medieval Platonists. As a Platonic text, The Golden Ass moves from the narrator’s amor ferinus with Fotis, the maid of a witch, through the transformation of Apuleius into an ass as a result of his curiosity concerning his lover’s mistress, to divine communion with the goddess Isis, a version of the ‘moon goddess’ (188).[7] Isis releases Apuleius from his daily humiliation and maltreatment on the condition he become a priest. The narrator’s bestial nature is literalised in his metamorphosis, and he ascends from being truly the humblest of beasts to a chaste life contemplating the divine by way of traditional physical torment and suffering. The turning point occurs when Apuleius, as an ass, is coerced into public sexual bestiality with a criminal. It should be noted that Apuleius is not perturbed by his private sexual gratification with a rich noblewoman, a situation which foresees Titania’s adoration of Bottom, but the new proposal horrifies him, ‘I was tempted to commit suicide rather than defile myself and be put to everlasting shame by bedding down with this wicked creature before the eyes of the entire amphitheatre’ (184). The ass flees, and is finally susceptible to the goddess’ first visitation.

  7. It was in this Neoplatonic context that The Golden Ass was first published in England in 1469, as part of a compendium of Platonic philosophy, Lucii Apuleii Platonici Madaurensis Philosophi Metamorphoseos Liber ac nonnulla alia opuscula eiusdem. As Edgar Wind records:
    Beroaldus’s commentary on the Golden Ass resumed these reflections by quoting from Plato, Proclus and Origen in order to explain the author’s intention and design … ‘And it appears that under the mystical cover, being deeply versed in Pythagorean and Platonic philosophy, he set forth the dogmas of both these masters, and conveyed the lessons of … regeneration and transmutation, through the disguise of that ludicrous story’.[8]
    The Elizabethan translation by William Adlington in 1566 was reprinted three times in the next thirty years, and seems likely to have been the edition available to Shakespeare. This translation does not overtly emphasise the Platonic drive behind the story, though Adlington does describe Apuleius as ‘an excellent follower of Plato his sect’.[9] Adlington’s preface typically seeks the truth behind the ‘wrap of this transformation’ in order to ‘open the meaning thereof to the simple and ignorant’ (xvi), and proposes the thematic issue to be the consequences ‘when … we suffer our minds so to be drowned in the sensual lusts of the flesh and the beastly pleasure thereof … that we lose wholly the use of reason and virtue, which properly should be in man, and play the part of brute and savage beasts’ (xvi). It is interesting that Adlington emphasises the metamorphic powers of (female) witches, especially in his description of Thessaly, ‘a region of Greece where all the women for the most be such wonderful witches, that they can transform men into the figure of brute beasts’ (xvi). The expansion to ‘all the women’ shifts the emphasis of the novel somewhat onto the metaphoric transformative powers of bestial love, a conceit indebted to Neoplatonic thought, but not exclusive to it.

  8. Bottom is a metaphor literalised, a fact that he immediately, though unwittingly, identifies, ‘this is to make an ass of me’ (3.1.106). Whilst it could be argued that this transformation (or ‘translation’ as Quince terms it, 3.1.105) potentially mirrors Apuleius’ in the ascendance from bestiality to the divine, there are other factors to consider. Potential contributory inspiration for Bottom’s metamorphosis includes Reginald Scot’s Discovery of Witchcraft (1584),[10] Ovid’s Midas, whose mutation is clearly due to his witlessness, ‘The Delian god would not allow ears so foolish to retain their human shape’ (Metamorphoses, 11. 175-6), and the other varied transformations in the Metamorphoses. As if to recall the latter text, animal metaphors abound throughout A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Helena tells Demetrius ‘I am your spaniel … / The more you beat me I will fawn on you’ and begs to be used as he would his dog (2.1.203-210). She then accuses him of having the heart of a wild beast (2.1.229), and invokes a reversal of an Ovidian myth ‘Apollo flies and Daphne holds the chase’, that figures herself as Daphne and mild creatures and Demetrius as Apollo and predator, ‘The dove pursues the griffin, the mild hind / Makes speed to catch the tiger’ (2.1.231-3). Helena later wails ‘I am as ugly as a bear’ (2.2.100), a conceit recalled when she describes herself as ‘baited’ by Hermia (3.2.198). Hermia meanwhile is obsessed with snakes, which are obviously phallic. Following her prophetic dream of a serpent eating her heart away (2.2.152-5), she accuses Demetrius of being ‘a worm, an adder … / thou serpent’ (3.2.71-73). Human metamorphosis is also implicated as Helena wishes to be ‘translated’ into Hermia (1.1.191), and the bantering gentility convert animal to animal in mocking the production of Pyramus and Thisbe, ‘The lion is a very fox for his valour. / True, and a goose for his discretion,’ (5.1.224-5). Puck describes his magical shape shifting in 2.1.47-53. In Bottom’s case, however, the metamorphosis is only partial. This may be due to the impossibility of seriously staging an articulate entire ass, though Bottom’s asinine head further recalls the full masks of pagan festivities in a nod to the Midsummer and May celebrations invoked by the play. This monstrous dual identity, of being in transition between two states, is manifested in the mortals’ dreamlike state and the setting itself, the removed, uninhabited wood.[11] The play takes place on the borders of consciousness, being, and civilisation, and thereby is ideal for supernatural, or divine, contact.

  9. Titania and Bottom are focal points for both the Ovidian and Neoplatonic registers of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. As described, ‘love’ between the mortal and immortal is both common to Ovidian myth and central to the Neoplatonic communion with Divine Beauty as the zenith of humanity’s spiritual potentiality. The love, or lust, conjured upon Titania for Bottom, the mortal transformed into animal shape rather than the god, reduces the consideration to this: is Bottom communicating with the divine, or is the divine humiliated?

  10. The bewitched Titania represents a loose interpretation of this heavenly love in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Though presented as a fairy queen, Titania is associated with classical goddesses throughout the text. Most obviously, her name is taken from the Metamorphoses where it is used patronymically to indicate the genealogy of various goddesses, including Diana, Latona, Circe and Pyrrha, as descendants of the Titans.[12] The most frequent allusion is to Diana, or her celestial incarnation as the moon. This is supported in A Midsummer Night’s Dream by pervasive lunar imagery. It is significant that Diana is known, and was well known in the sixteenth century, as the triple goddess, whose form changes according to both situation and phase of the moon. In the heavens she is Cynthia, on earth Diana, and under the earth Hecate, goddess of witchcraft, death, and the underworld (occasionally interpreted as Proserpine). As George Chapman writes in his obscure narrative poem, The Shadow of Night (1594), Diana / Cynthia is ‘Nature’s bright eye-sight, and Night’s faire soule, / That with thy triple forehead dost controule / Earth, seas, and hell.’ (1-3) Despite her Ovidian lineage, Titania articulates most clearly the concept of Neoplatonic ascent. She tells Bottom that while he sleeps, she ‘will purge thy mortal grossness so’ (3.1.142). Titania epitomises the dual representations of desire under discussion, as she is here simultaneously beguiled by Bottom’s earthly, bestial ‘beauty’ (‘Mine ear is much enamoured of thy note; / So is mine eye enthralled to thy shape;’ 3.1.122-123) and the aims of the divine.

  11. The communion of the divine and mortal in Shakespeare’s Neoplatonic source, The Golden Ass, is reiterated by the text’s sub-narrative of Cupid and Psyche in Chapters VII-IX. The story is told by an old woman to calm an abducted girl and is overheard by Lucius Apuleius in asinine form. Though the story is without moral embellishment, its presence in such a Platonist text ensured the myth of Cupid and Psyche was easily allegorised in the Renaissance. The story is of divine and mortal love, jeopardised by the mortal Psyche, who must then undergo several tasks and torments to regain her divine communion. Psyche signifies the soul, and thereby both Neoplatonic and Christian allegory is almost effortless.

  12. Psyche’s divine ascendance is threefold. Initially she is raised to the status of a goddess by the descriptions and adulations of the common people who ignore Venus’ temples to honour the beautiful Psyche. This undeserved equation, in Apuleius’ words ‘this extraordinary transfer of divine honours to a mortal’, leads to the wrath of Venus who sends Cupid, Puck-like, to inspire in Psyche love for ‘some perfect outcast of a man’ (80-81). Fortunately for Psyche, Cupid himself falls in love with her, leading to the second elevation of Psyche in the sexual communion of divine and mortal. This is lost when Psyche, influenced by her sisters, disobeys Cupid’s rule about her never seeing his face and lights a lamp. She accidentally burns Cupid, revealing her disobedience, and is abandoned. Venus then sadistically torments Psyche and sets her impossible tasks. The final one of these comprises a descent to the underworld to see Proserpine. On Psyche’s return, Cupid forgives her, helps her, and marries her ‘officially’ in the heavens, where Psyche is made immortal by Jupiter and thus completes her ascent to, and full communion with, the divine. This descent and ascent is allegorised into the trials and ascent of the soul as it strives for divine unity. 

  13. Psyche’s spiritual ascent to literal amor divinus is dramatised in Thomas Heywood’s rarely considered Love’s Mistress (1634). This text is significant in comparison to A Midsummer Night’s Dream because it is both similarly derivative, utilising the same philosophical, textual, and ideological tropes, and because such contributory material potentially includes Shakespeare’s play.  Heywood’s play was written for the Caroline court, though performed publicly afterwards, and is an example of the self-consciously Neoplatonic writing cultivated by the queen (its alternative title is The Queen’s Masque). Crucially, the choric narrator of this court play is Apuleius himself, freshly transformed back into human shape, who explains the allegory throughout to an ignorant Midas. It has three levels: the dialogue between Apuleius and Midas, the dramatisation of the narrative of Cupid and Psyche, and pastoral comic relief.

  14. Apuleius enters the first act holding a pair of ass ears, ‘This follies crest’, in order to recall his recent metamorphosis, ‘to shew how vaine my ambitions were.’ (1.1.16-17). The metamorphosis occurred, so he tells the audience, as a result of him having ‘a braine aym’d at inscrutable things, / Beyond the Moone’ (1.1.5-6). This Apuleius, then, is the fictional Lucius Apuleius of The Golden Ass, rather than the author, though he is a distinctly seventeenth-century example of human pride rather than the curious, lecherous protagonist of the original. As he elaborates,
    … man who keepes not in his bounds,
    But pries into Heavens hidden mysteries
    Further than leave; his dullness is increast,
    Ceaseth to be a man, and so turnes beast.

    Apuleius is on his way to Helicon and asks Midas for directions. Midas’ reply rudely disparages poetry and so Apuleius attempts to change his mind by presenting the myth of Cupid and Psyche as an exercise in imaginative poetic drama. To keep Midas’ attention, the action is interspersed with various ‘antimasque’, such as the first display of assorted human ‘asses’. Midas is resolutely unimpressed and asks to see the ‘Poet Asse’ who would produce on stage ‘A young greene-sicknesse baggage to run after / A little ape-faced boy thou term’st a god’ (1.1.469-70). This metadramatic denial of theatricality leads to Apuleius’ first detailed allegorical explanation, the golden truth that gives credibility to the imaginative fable for those wise enough to see it:
    Psiche is Anima, Psiche is the Soule,
    The Soule a Virgin, longs to be a bride,
    The soule’s Immortall, whom then can shee wooe
    But Heaven? Whome wed, but Immortality:
    Venus is interpreted as ‘intemperate lust’ (1.1.489), Venus volgare, whilst Cupid is simultaneously the Immortality referred to above and Desire, which is both ‘good and ill’ (1.1.492). However, the Cupid of the presentation is identified by Apuleius as the ‘true desire, / [that] Doates on the soule’ (1.1.494-5).

  15. The presence of Midas, a ‘churlish’, ‘savage’, ‘bruite-like’, ‘dull covetous fool’ representative of ‘Ignorance’ as opposed to Apuleius as ‘Art’, (1.1.21-90) requires consideration. As described above, the myth of Midas is a strong contributory predecessor of Bottom and an archetypal fool, but is linked to Cupid and Psyche in no way other than the asinine metamorphoses of Midas’ ears and Apuleius’ protagonist who recalls the tale of Cupid and Psyche in The Golden Ass. It can be supposed, then, that Heywood intends the audience (initially an educated aristocratic audience) to know of this link, otherwise Midas’ presence in a play heavy with allegory is rather arbitrary. To assist, Midas’ foolish wish for gold is retold briefly, 1.1.46-60, and he declares that he has resigned his kingdom in shame and now wears ‘this wooll crowne, and am King of beasts’ (1.1.65). The occasion for Midas growing his ass’s ears is also staged, but lacks the transformation. Midas, set up as a cultural philistine, judges the competition between Apollo and Pan’s musicians as described in Ovid’s Metamorphoses 11 (3.1). This conflates two levels of the play, the choric foil Midas and the pastoral comedy, as Pan’s ‘champion’ is the Clown, incidentally described as ‘base Midas’ bastard’ (2.1.257). When Midas chooses Pan’s rural music over Apollo’s, the bestial metamorphosis is briefly implied but channelled into a metaphor for the decline of mental faculties in age by Apollo:
    Midas, for thee, may thy ears longer grow,
    As shorter still thy judgement, dulnesse, and dotage,
    Bee onely govern’d with those reverend haires;
    Admittedly, staging the growth of ass ears would be tricky,[13] but Midas’ metamorphosis is ultimately omitted in Heywood’s text. This is a specifically Neoplatonic Midas, rather than Ovidian, whose baseness is demonstrated metaphorically in language rather than visualised in metamorphosis. It is a symbolic bestiality illustrated in the text’s conclusion when Cupid gives Apuleius’ ass ears, akin in the play to a professional fool’s hat, to Midas. Midas’ role in Love’s Mistress is to personify the untransformed ass in opposition to Apuleius as the converted ass. In contrast, Bottom, as mentioned previously, is the metaphor realised, linked to Midas through his foolishness, his transformation, and the textual emphasis on his ‘fair large ears’ (Titania, 4.1.4). Additionally, Midas’ preference for rural music, ‘Made out of Tinkers, Pans, and Kettle-drummes’ (3.1.204), possibly can be related to the ‘Mechanicals’’ art of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

  16. The Neoplatonic imagery of the potential ascent and descent of the soul is present textually, literally and allegorically explained in Love’s Mistress. For example, Apuleius explains in his opening speech that he once aimed beyond the moon, and was punished for overreaching, but we notice that he is still ambitious for ascent in travelling to the Muses’ hill (1.1.22). Psyche, in order to attain divine love, literally climbs a mountain. This was represented onstage through Inigo Jones’ set and is narrated in the descriptions of her family, ‘… see how she strives / Against the swelling bosome of the hill …’ (1.1.301-2). Apuleius then explains the allegory, ‘This shewes how many strong adversities, / Crosses, pricks, thornes, and stings of conscience, / Would throw the ambitious soule affecting heaven,’ (1.1.503-5). Descent is implied in Apuleius’ account of the consequence of his pride, ‘And thus I fell’ (1.1.13). Psyche’s fall is metaphorical, but intimated as Cupid says, ‘Ile mourne in heaven, to see thy paines in hell’ (3.1.304) and then ‘ascends’. Ultimately, Psyche has to visit the underworld, the uttermost descent, before ascending to heaven with Cupid.

  17. Such dramatised ascent and descent is as indebted to Christian interpretation as it is to Neoplatonic allegory in Heywood’s play. Psyche’s ‘fall’ is effectively paradise lost, as Cupid commands Boreus, the North wind, to, ‘Lay waste and barren this fair flowrie grove, / And make this Paradise a den of snakes; / For I will have it uglier then hell’ (3.1.69-71), and casts out Psyche deformed and clothed in rags. Allegorically, sin deforms the soul. Apuleius’ allegorical interpretations are also increasingly drawn from the Christian semantic field. His explanation of Psyche’s tasks, sorting out mixed grain, and gathering water from the Styx (achieved through the assistance of a team of ants and Jove’s eagle), speaks of penitence, repentance and ‘Heaven’s providence’ (4.1.391-412).

  18. The use of Cupid and Psyche in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is intimated in Puck’s Cupid-like role, and the broader Neoplatonic contexts of the myth. However, the Christian resonance of Heywood’s metadrama, which takes metamorphosis as largely metaphorical, linguistically symbolic and indebted to both Neoplatonic and Christian philosophy, is almost indiscernible in Shakespeare’s text, which literalises metaphor in a way reminiscent of the original myths.

  19. The precise nature of the relationship between Titania and Bottom alters how we read the play as a whole. Critics like Jan Kott use a sexual basis to underline the undoubtedly dark elements of the text, whilst others, such as Marina Warner, claim the implied asinine modification of Bottom’s genitalia would have been a source of much humour.[14] This is to ignore the fact that it is only Bottom’s head that has been transformed. However, if the retirement to the bower that concludes 3.1 promises a sexual union, the text is firmly indebted to Ovidian metamorphic sexual bestiality. Titania’s initial promises are completely non-sexual. She offers Bottom a rejection of materiality, ‘I will purge thy mortal grossness so / That thou shalt like an airy spirit go’, and fairy servants  (3.1.139-156). This is potentially negated by Titania’s concluding thoughts, ‘The moon, methinks, looks with a wat’ry eye, / And when she weeps, weeps every little flower, / Lamenting some enforced chastity.’ (3.1.179-81). This can be read severally. The ‘enforced chastity’ could mean either violated chastity or involuntary chastity. If we follow the moon’s association, through Diana, with chastity, then this implies violation (of Bottom? We know Titania is neither chaste nor unwilling) or simply indicates Titania’s plan for sexual consummation. It is possible that Titania may refer to the amorous moon of mythology, Selene, and her infatuation with Endimion. This interpretation possibly implies Titania has chastity forced upon her by the uncooperative Bottom. Both these readings, however, support the sexual aims of Titania, as does the mild pun ‘To have my love to bed and to arise’ (3.1.166) and her later image of the ringed finger, with a suitable natural twist, ‘female ivy so / Enrings the barky fingers of the elm’ (4.1.40-41). When we next see the couple, Titania is cosseting her ‘gentle joy’, kissing his ears and decorating him with flowers (4.1.2-4). Bottom’s concerns meanwhile are typically asinine and involve having his face scratched and the desire for sweet hay and dried peas (4.1.10-36). It seems Bottom’s innocence and lack of perception render him oblivious to Titania’s advances, and therefore either interpretation of the ‘enforced chastity’ will suffice. The non-sexual nature of the relationship chiefly serves to enhance the playful, though dark, exploration of the confusions of desire throughout the play and to perpetuate the ambiguous mixture of models. The comedy of the text is facilitated by the ambiguity of consummation and Bottom’s lack of awareness. The imagination and expectation of the audience is played with; the text suggests, but does not confirm.

  20. Whether or not Oberon intends Titania to degrade herself by partaking of bestial sexual intercourse is hard to fathom. He certainly intends the beloved to be bestial, a ‘lion, bear, or wolf, or bull, / On meddling monkey, or on busy ape’ (2.1.180-81);
    Be it ounce or cat, or bear
    Pard, or boar with bristled hair,
    In thy eye that shall appear
    When thou wak’st, it is thy dear.
    Wake when some vile thing is near.
    He wants Titania to have ‘hateful fantasies’ (2.1.258), though these are possibly strange animals to identify if the aim was degrading sexual bestiality. Oberon’s aim is public humiliation and private shame, in what she thinks she desires, not violation. The humiliation of the goddess figure is the ultimate realisation of the dark misogynistic undertones of the playful text. Hermia’s choice of lover, Hippolyta’s military resistance, and Titania’s refusal to give up the Indian changeling all constitute disobedience to the patriarch and all are punished for it. Titania, being a goddess / fairy queen can hardly be threatened with death or a nunnery (both, incidentally, implicating infinite chastity) but she is punished and made tame, just as Hippolyta is by Theseus, that notorious rapist and abandoner of women.[15]

  21. Titania’s links to the classical multiple-formed goddesses can be widened. It was, and is, common for trans-culturally equated and inter-culturally related goddesses to be made composite, and for ancient mother goddesses such as Isis to be assimilated into various cultures. Frances A. Yates records that Astraea is a composite of or comparable to Ceres (Astraea holds a sheaf of corn), Venus, Fortune, Isis, Atargatis, the Syrian goddess worshipped under the name of Virgo Caelestis at Carthage, and is associated with Urania, and, like Isis, with the moon.[16] The ancient great goddess Isis, of whom Apuleius becomes a devotee in The Golden Ass, is further disseminated into Artemis, Aphrodite, Proserpine, Ceres, Juno, Bellona and Hecate through younger and foreign civilisations.[17] This amalgamation resulted in what Ted Hughes terms in his pervasive study the ‘Great Goddess’ or the ‘Goddess of Complete Being’.[18] Hughes’ vast thesis is that three fundamental myths establish the belief systems and mythology of multitudinous cultures, mainly ancient European, Middle Eastern and Northern African. These myths are the existence of the Great Goddess (in most obvious and ancient form the Earth mother type goddesses of Rhea, Gaia, Tiamat and Isis)[19] the destruction of the Goddess’ beloved by his brother god, and the destruction of the Goddess herself by the same. The Egyptian mythology of the multifaceted Isis and her husband / brother Osiris exemplifies this pattern. According to myth, Osiris’ jealous brother Set dismembered Osiris disguised as a wild boar, and persecuted Isis as she attempted to collect the globally scattered body parts. The destruction of the goddess is more explicit in, for example, the Assyrian-Babylonian creation myth of Marduk’s defeat of the Great Goddess Tiamat. Hughes finds the myth repeated in the trio of Venus, Adonis and Proserpine, in the version of the myth where Proserpine and Venus agree to share possession of Adonis (Osiris), and Proserpine (Set) kills him, as the boar, in a fit of jealousy when Venus (Isis, in her form of Divine Love) keeps Adonis too long. In these various forms, Hughes claims that the myth is developed and re-presented throughout Shakespeare’s canon as:
    … a syncretic mythology, in which all archaic mythological figures and events are available as a thesaurus of glyphs or token symbols – the personal language of the new metaphysical system … internally structured poetic images … the single image as a package of precisely folded, multiple meanings, consistent  with the meanings of a unified system.
    Shakespeare’s intentionality is never intimated clearly in Hughes, but the thesis is limited by an uncritical mysticism and an essentialist insistence upon this ‘metaphysical system’ as transcultural and transtemporal, as indicating a fundamental myth or spirituality that is seen to underpin belief and artistic systems. Rather, I argue that the same social values that inspire the mythology of a Great Goddess exist transtemporally throughout patriarchal human civilisation. The same fundamental attitudes and anxieties toward the female existed in pre-Christian civilisations and in the sixteenth century, and thereby govern the Shakespearean representation of female characters (many of which Hughes ascribes to being variants of the Goddess). The omnipresence of the myth does not make it a mystic truth; rather it offers a truth of the human psyche. Hughes, Robert Graves, and the belief systems they cite share the common division of the feminine principle into the mother / the earth, the bride / lover and death, essentialist formats which epitomise the creational and emotional anxiety generated by misogynistic cultures. Such anxiety is relieved in the myth of the Goddess being destroyed by the God, the founder of a new epoch and the triumph of patriarchal authority.

  22. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is conspicuous by its comparative absence in Hughes’ study. It is said to fit the pattern (493-6), and thereby it is easy to read the conflict between Titania and Oberon as a relatively straightforward representation of the destruction of the Great Goddess, the misogynistic myth and anxiety underpinning ancient patriarchal belief systems. Hughes writes that Oberon’s revenge is ‘a grotesque fairyland nightmare’, in that he makes Titania ‘wholly a Queen of Hell … As a result she is revealed as the consort of the Lord of Hell – who is always the gross inferior brother, Set, who is the Boar, or alternatively (in Egyptian terms) the Ass.’[20] Significantly, Set had ass’ ears and the ass was his sacred animal. For this reason, asses were said to be hated by Isis, and sacrificed prolifically in honour of Horus, the avenging son of Osiris and Isis.[21] Thereby, Bottom’s ass head represents the animal that the moon goddess Isis describes in The Golden Ass as ‘the most hateful beast in the universe’.[22] One of the Great Goddess’ manifest forms was as Divine Love,[23] which leads us back to the Neoplatonic communion between the divine and the human of Titania and Bottom, and yet also the corresponding utter humiliation of a goddess figure in a union with a detested creature.

  23. Acknowledging the anxious misogynistic undertones of this ‘fantasy of male control’ is somewhat antithetical to a Neoplatonic reading of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.[24] Obviously, this does not indicate the misogyny is ‘Ovidian’, but the accompanying subtext of violence is. The various entertainments offered to and rejected by Theseus in the final act all carry allusions to conflict between the sexes, rape, and dismemberment, and all are from the Metamorphoses. The battle of the centaurs, incidentally at a wedding, sung by a eunuch (5.1.44) is from the twelfth book and the murder of Orpheus by the Bacchae (5.1.48-9) is from the eleventh. The chosen performance of Pyramus and Thisbe is also Ovidian (Book 4), and similarly conflates love and death. This suppressed subtext includes Theseus’ background and the choice of ‘Hippolyta’ over the mythologically correct ‘Antiopa’ for the Amazon queen that married Theseus. ‘Hippolyta’ deliberately recalls Theseus and Antiopa’s son Hippolytus and his tragic death. Theseus’ next wife, Phaedra, fell in love with Hippolytus, a misogynist devotee of Artemis (in Euripides’ tragedy Hippolytus, this love is instigated by Aphrodite in revenge for Hippolytus’ devotion to a chaste life). Hippolytus’ disgust at Phaedra’s confession causes her to hang herself leaving a note claiming that Hippolytus raped her. In his anger, Theseus prays for Neptune to kill Hippolytus, which is achieved by Neptune sending a bull to frighten Hippolytus’ horses and crash his chariot. His name literally means, ‘torn apart by horses’.  Hippolyta was an Amazon queen (and thereby is not simply an invented ‘back formation’ of Hippolytus as Louis Montrose suggests),[25] but neither the wife of Theseus nor the mother of Hippolytus. Shakespeare seems to have perversely chosen her name in a deliberate intertextual use of myth to recall yet more instances of incest, filicide and suicide.

  24. Such a violent classical background also partially negates the potentiality of Pyramus and Thisbe to function as Christian allegory.[26] The context in which the dramatisation of Pyramus and Thisbe is chosen to appear is specifically Ovidian. The story offers an ominous alternative to the wedded bliss of Hermia and Lysander, where defiance of parental authority ends in tragedy rather than reconciliation. It is the association of the violent familial tragedies with the comic representation of Pyramus and Thisbe that suggests that the play about the blindness of love may have serious undertones. The lovers’ perception is challenged, they cannot see the whole of each other through the ‘chink’ in the wall, and are doomed from the moment Pyramus erroneously equates Thisbe’s bloodied mantle with Thisbe herself.

  25. The enchantment of Titania, as of the mortal lovers, is literally a charming of the eyes that ensures an alteration of perception. It is established that images of sight and perception resonate throughout A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as the text plays with the theories of the altered perception of those in love, the blindfolded Cupid (Eros), and the Neoplatonic prioritisation of sight and ultimate move beyond sensory perception in divine communion, Bembo’s ‘eyes of the mind’.[27] The joke in the text is that sight is fallible and susceptible to magical interference. At the end of the play Demetrius’ eyes are still enchanted, his newfound devotion unchallenged. This is often overlooked, and adds considerable unease to the climactic triple marriage festivities.

  26. Puck’s role in dispensing the love juice rearticulates him as an incarnation of the classical Cupid or Eros, and perhaps resolves the uncomfortable opposition between the natural and magically instigated love. The ‘puck’ or Robin Goodfellow of English folk mythology, ‘that shrewd and knavish sprite’ (2.1.33), as described in Scot’s Discovery, is both powerful and facetious, and thereby potentially translatable into the mischievous and dangerously petulant young god described throughout both Apuleius and Ovid. In Heywood’s version, published forty years after A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Venus orders Cupid to play Puck, to ‘Make her [Psyche] in Love, but let her proud eyes doate / On some ill-shapen drudge, some ugly foole’ (1.1.240-41). Puck assumes his role as the classical Cupid from Oberon’s ‘Love-in-idleness’ speech (2.1.155-74). He is given control over the juice taken from a flower hit by Cupid’s ricocheting arrow, and applies it with equal randomness, causing equal madness in love. Puck explicitly invokes Cupid after exhausting the lovers, ‘Cupid is a knavish lad / Thus to make poor females mad’ (3.3.28-9), and thereby could be referring to both himself, in his torment and manipulation of the mortals, and ‘Cupid’ as emblematic of the non-magical love which initiated the lovers’ trials.

  27.  The challenges to perception in A Midsummer Night’s Dream are attributed by the enchanted parties to a dream, a liminal state between reality and fantasy. As Titania says upon awakening, ‘what visions I have seen!’ (4.1.73). The experiences of the bewitched characters are explained as occurring on the borders of consciousness. As Puck tells the audience in the Epilogue,
    If we shadows have offended,
    Think but this, and all is mended:
    That you have but slumbered here,
    While these visions did appear;
    And this weak and idle theme,
    No more yielding but a dream,
    Like the lovers in the play, if the audience are perturbed by the fantastic display they have witnessed, then they can explain it away as a dream. A Neoplatonic interpretation here is possible, as sleep was thought to facilitate divine communion and indeed, dreams were sometimes attributed to divine communication. An iconic mythological example was Endimion, beloved of the moon or moon goddess, who visited him and consummated her love whilst he slept.[28] Francis Bacon explains, ‘To Endymion the Moon descended of her own accord as he slept; for divine influences sometimes steal spontaneously into the understanding when at rest, and withdrawn from the senses’.[29] For Bottom, this visitation of the divine (emphasised by Titania’s association with the moon) casts him as a Neoplatonic Endimion-figure. In this role, Bottom’s bewitchment is a dream by which he achieves communication with the divine. His own reasoning is worth quoting in full:
    I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream past the wit of man to say what dream it was. Man is but an ass if he go about t’expound this dream. Methought I was – there is no man can tell what. Methought I was, and methought I had – but man is but a patched fool if he will offer to say what methought I had. The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, not his heart to report what my dream was. I will get Peter Quince to write a ballad of this dream. It shall be called ‘Bottom’s Dream’ because it hath no bottom.
    Bottom is saying that man is an ass if he attempts to understand his dreams; Bottom’s dream has no bottom because it is unfathomable. He refers to the inferior senses of man in a misquote, or possibly burlesque, of I Corinthians 2:9.[30] This concurs with the Neoplatonic concept of the divinity of dreams. As a result, Neoplatonists often did not feel obliged to explain their dreams or visions as they were divine communications and thereby beyond the reach of man.  Bottom acknowledges his inability to verbally describe his experience, much as Apuleius is unable to reveal the nature of his esoteric divine initiation in The Golden Ass.[31]

  28. Theseus participates in this dialectic concerning dreams by playing the part of the cynical, undermining party. His thoughts on the imagination are horribly practical,
    … I may never believe
    These antique fables, nor these fairy toys.
    Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
    Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
    More than cool reason ever comprehends.
    The lunatic, the lover and the poet
    Are of imagination, all compact.
    In this limited view, Theseus acknowledges the power of imagination, but also its irrationality in altering perception in the face of ‘cool reason’, ‘How easily is a bush supposed a bear!’ (5.1.22). Hippolyta’s reply uses reason to philosophically suggest that ‘…all their minds transfigured so together, / More witnesseth than fancy’s images, / And grows to something of great constancy’ (5.1.24-26), but she is ignored by Theseus. Hippolyta’s suggestion can be read as a theory of mythical meaning; fantastic fables can indicate a fundamental conceit, a theory that lies behind the fair obsession in the sixteenth century in finding the ‘truth’ hidden in classical myth. Locating the fantastic in dreams, where metaphors are literalised and realised, as the audience have just witnessed in the metamorphosis of Bottom, indicates that truths can indeed be hidden by symbols. This language of signs transcends reason, and can either be passively observed, as in the case of Bottom and the Neoplatonists who felt it unnecessary to interpret the Divine, or dismissed as nonsense. Hippolyta intimates that there is a third way, a possibility of deciphering the signs in order to understand the ‘great constancy’.

  29. The lack of imagination is also central to the action of Love’s Mistress. It is Midas’ dismissal of poetry that leads to Apuleius’ presentation of Cupid and Psyche. Apuleius, too, finds things of ‘great constancy’ in the mythical fables as a personification of the Renaissance tendency to allegorise classical myth. Midas is considered particularly oblivious to art and poetry because of the myth of his championing Pan over Apollo, the error that classically gave him the ears of an ass. His lack of imagination is demonstrated in his perception of Cupid and Psyche as ‘A little ape-faced boy’ and a ‘greene-sicknesse baggage’ (1.1.469-70). This refers to both the mythical characters and metadramatically to the actors themselves. As Midas points out, the representation of Cupid is only perceived as such because the poet-author Apuleius ‘term’st’ it so. He does not participate in the suspension of disbelief required in theatrical representation.

  30. The responsibility of the audience in their viewing of Heywood’s play has already been intimated in the necessary mental association that makes Midas’ presence logical. They are paralleled with Midas, in the mutual position as audience, and thereby are too lectured by Apuleius on the importance of poetry and Neoplatonic spiritual ascendance. The close of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is also metadramatic, but whereas Heywood’s play closes the book concerning the validity of imaginative drama and myth, Shakespeare’s text opens up the ‘dream’ to a potentially disturbing multitude of possibilities. The myth and the dream both potentially disseminate the imagery of human experience into symbolic form, but whereas Midas and Apuleius demonstrate this as a concrete system of signs to be read by the wise, Bottom, surrounded by threatening Ovidian primary material, is a cautious observer and he accepts the situation’s incomprehensibility.

  31. The conclusion of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, then, reiterates the dialectic tendency of the text in its interrogation of rational and irrational love, and its effect on the imagination. Shakespeare uses a largely Ovidian mythic discourse to counteract a philosophical one, and makes clear the uncertainty and displacement inherent in attempting to read the symbolic systems of myth, drama, and dream, without compromising their validity. The text does not parody Neoplatonism, but presents it as part of a pastiche, a display of styles, multiple arguments, and intertextuality. Bottom is elevated but Titania is humiliated, and the unregulated environment of the forest and the implicated popular holiday facilitates the exploration of their experiences. Neoplatonic philosophy is present both in the thought processes of the characters and the contributory source texts. However, the Ovidian registers, particularly the sinister references and the treatment of Titania, steer the text away from compliance with Neoplatonic thought in a continuation of ideological anxiety concerning heterosexual relationships. We must be aware of emphasising the play’s darkness though; the text is balanced between the disturbing aspects, malevolent sniggering, intellectual manoeuvres and laughter. Concentration on either the magical, comedic force or the darkness is at the expense of the opposing force, and leads to the extremes demonstrated by the film of Max Reinhardt or Jan Kott’s criticism. The play is truly fantastical in presenting the elevation, the ignobility, and the multitude of intermediary stages possible in the divine human animal.


[1] Frank Kermode, ‘The Banquet of Sense’ in Renaissance Essays: Shakespeare, Spenser, Donne (London: Routledge, 1971), 84-115, 90.

[2] Baldassare Castiglione, The Book of the Courtier (1528) (London: J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd., 1928), 303.

[3] Marsilio Ficino, Commentary on Plato’s Symposium on Love translated and introduced by Sears Jayne (Dallas: Spring Publications, 1985), 54.

[4] See Ficino, Speech VII, Chapter 3: ‘On bestial love; that is a kind of insanity.’

[5] The prioritisation of the spiritual over the sensual is clearly a point where Neoplatonic philosophy can be reconciled with Christian theology, and literature exploring this theme can be found under either guise.

[6] Ovid’s Metamorphoses: The Arthur Golding Translation, 1567 edited by John Frederick Nims (Philadelphia: Paul Dry Books, 2000), 421.

[7] All references follow Lucius Apuleius, The Transformations of Lucius, otherwise known as The Golden Ass translated by Robert Graves (London: The Folio Society, 1960).

[8] Edgar Wind, Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance (London: Faber & Faber, 1958), cites Philippi Beroaldi in Commentarios Apuleianos praefatio (1516), fol. A.iii.v, 236-7.

[9] William Adlington, ‘The Life of Lucius Apuleius Briefly Described’ in Apuleius, The Golden Ass, Being the Metamorphoses of Lucius Apuleius, translated by W. Adlington (1566), revised by S. Gaselee (London: William Heinemann Ltd., 1924), xix.

[10] Reginald Scot, The Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584), The Third Chapter, ‘Of a man turned into an asse, and returned againe into a man by one of Bodins witches’, 94-99.

[11] It is interesting that Reginald Scot posits the proper ‘shape’ of the young man transformed into an ass by a Cypriot witch as unquestionably ‘in the woods: where else should it be?’ The Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584), 97.

[12] See Metamorphoses 1. 395-6; 3. 173; 6. 346-7; 7. 207-8; 14. 14-15, 382.

[13] Though they apparently sprout on stage in John Lyly’s Midas (1592). Apollo: ‘… touch thine ears. They shall tell thee.’ / Midas: ‘What hast thou done, Apollo? The ears of an ass upon the head of a king?’ / Apollo: ‘And well worthy, when the dullness of an ass is in the ears of a king.’ (4.1.130-33).

[14] See Jan Kott, Shakespeare Our Contemporary (1964) trans. by Boleslaw Taborski (London: Methuen, 1967); Marina Warner, From the Beast to the Blonde: On fairy tales and their tellers (London: Vintage, 1995), 315.

[15] See 2.1.77-80. According to myth, Theseus abandoned Ariadne on Naxos, raped Perigouna, and here is credited with also breaking his faith with mistresses Aegles and Antiopa.  However, Oberon claims these betrayals are down to Titania, potentially relieving Theseus’ agency, and shifting any blame onto the ‘wanton’ female.

[16] Frances A. Yates, Astraea: The Imperial Theme in the Sixteenth Century (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1975), 32-3.

[17] Apuleius, 188-190. Also described by Plutarch, Moralia Book V. The worship of Isis had been introduced into Greece before 330 BC.

[18] Ted Hughes, Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being (London: Faber & Faber, 1992). This study is obviously heavily indebted to Robert Graves’ The White Goddess: A historical grammar of poetic myth (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1948) though makes no reference to the older text. Graves’ study is mythically Anglo-centric, though contains the details on Isis and Osiris, and considers a multitude of poets, all of whom, he opines, invoke the figure of the White Goddess, her consort or her destroyer. See Chapter XXIV ‘The Single Poetic Theme’, 422-41.

[19] Apuleius has Isis describe herself as ‘Nature, the universal Mother, mistress of all the elements, primordial child of time, sovereign of all things spiritual, queen of the dead, queen also of the immortals, the single manifestation of all gods and goddesses there are.’ (190).

[20] Emphasis added, 494.

[21] See Robert Graves, The Greek Myths: Combined Edition (London: Penguin, 1992), 21.1, 83.2.

[22] Apuleius, 191.

[23] See Hughes on Neoplatonist Giordano Bruno, 24.

[24] Louis Montrose, ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the Shaping Fantasies of Elizabethan Culture: Gender, Power, Form’ in Rewriting the Renaissance: The Discourses of Sexual Difference in Early Modern Europe edited by Margaret W. Ferguson, Maureen Quilligan, Nancy J. Vickers (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), 65-87, 69.

[25] Montrose, The Purpose of Playing: Shakespeare and the Cultural Politics of the Elizabethan Theatre (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 148.

[26] The myth was interpreted in the Renaissance as representative of Christ (Pyramus), the human soul (Thisbe) and Evil (the lion).

[27] Castiglione, 318.

[28] In John Lyly’s Endymion (1591), roles are reversed in that Endymion is infatuated with the chaste moon, Cynthia. This allegorical play alludes and contributes to the courtly cult of Elizabeth I. See Michael Pincombe, The Plays of John Lyly: Eros and Eliza (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1996).

[29] Sir Francis Bacon, De Augmentis Scientiarum, II, Ch. xiii in Works ed. Spedding, Ellis, Heath, (Boston, 1863), VIII, 456-57.

[30] ‘The eye hath not seen, and the ear hath not heard, neither have entered into the heart of man’ those things that God has prepared.

[31] J.J.M. Tobin’s analogy, Shakespeare’s Favourite Novel: A Study of The Golden Asse As Prime Source (Lanham: University Press of America, 1984), 39-40.

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