A Play on Words by John Ritchie

Shakespeare is believed to have written 'A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ between 1590 and 1596, by which time he was a well established and highly regarded playwright and poet. The Dream is widely considered to be a light-hearted play and is very popular, being used in schools as an introduction to the Bard’s work and often performed in the summer at open-air theatres. But it is possible that the play might have been part of an ongoing dialogue between Shakespeare and Elizabeth I regarding the monarch’s determination to rule alone.

Take for example, Shakespeare’s representation of Richard II. The play appears to have had a minor role in the events surrounding the final downfall of the Earl of Essex who led a rather ineffectual rebellion against the Queen in 1601. Charles and Joscelyn Percy (younger brothers of the Earl of Northumberland), paid "above the ordinary" for a performance, at the Globe Theatre on the eve of the attempted insurrection, of this play, which even the Chamberlain’s Men felt was too old and "out of use" to attract a large audience, yet clearly it made its point, because Elizabeth who was well aware of the political ramifications of the story including as it does Richard’s abdication, supposedly remarked "I am Richard II, knowye not that?" But it may be that Shakespeare’s message was rather more subtle. In Act 4, Richard takes his crown and invites Bolingbroke to take it from him. “Here, cousin, seize the crown. Here, cousin, on this side my hand, on that side, thine." For some moments both men hold the crown, and thereby, metaphorically, the power the crown represents. Might it be that Shakespeare was suggesting that Elizabeth share her crown, that is, that she marry. Marriages of political expedience have been commonplace throughout history and apart from securing important alliances were also used to provide heirs. An uncertain succession, as is the case with an heir-less monarch, could throw the country into civil and religious conflict, an outcome no right-minded person would have wanted.

The theme of marriage is re-visited in 'The Dream’ with the additional twist of not one but three nuptials being planned. If that were not complicated enough, considerable confusion and upset is introduced by Oberon and Titania, King and Queen of the fairy folk, who are arguing over who has the raising of an orphan boy. Here, Shakespeare has put an heir, albeit one who doesn’t actually appear in the play, centre stage, thereby making his point quite clear. Further on he has Titania dispatch her attendants to remove any disease from the wild rose buds, so that “beauty may blossom". To an Elizabethan audience the allusion would be obvious; at the time roses were associated with the female genitalia and therefore ensuring their flowering was a clear reference to successful childbearing.

In the play within a play, Shakespeare could be interpreted as taking a riskier approach. In this patently ridiculous romp, Shakespeare lampoons his own profession as an actor and a playwright, yet nevertheless contrives to send a chilling message. When the lion is seen with Thisby’s bloodied mantle in his mouth, the audience knows that no actual harm has befallen Thisby, but the scene is open to interpretation. It was common practice at this time for the bed sheets to be displayed on the morning after a wedding to show both: that the marriage had been consummated and that the bride had been a virgin at the time of her marriage. Shakespeare famously used this device to suggest Desdemona’s infidelity in 'Othello’, when a strawberry- spotted handkerchief fell into the wrong hands. In the 'play within a play’, however, the 'bloodied’ garment is held by a yokel pretending to be a lion. To the Elizabethans the lion, was representative of kingship and in Richard II, Queen Isabella entreats the cowed Richard to act like a lion even as he is imprisoned, by a commoner, Bolinbroke. Yet here the lion is commoner holding a representation of virginity. Therefore, this could be interpreted as the risk to the Virgin Queen of being deposed by her subjects or a low-born usurper, such as Bolingbroke, or the ill fated, Earl of Essex.

Ultimately however, Nature, decided the matter and after a successful 45 year reign, Elizabeth died an unmarried woman, in 1603.


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