Brother Anthony (An Sonjae) Sogang University
The term "modern literature" is a not very clearly defined one; it is normally used to signify literary works written "recently", whether in the last five years, or fifty, or since 1800, will depend on the user's perspective. Yet there are many "modern" novels and poems which drop from sight only a few months or years after they are published, leaving a feeling that they have already served their time and are now "outdated" and "old- fashioned". While certain much older works retain far more interest for and power over today's readers and writers.
One of the most controversial writers of modern literary criticism, Harold Bloom, in various works of which The Western Canon (1994) is only the most recent, suggests another way of approaching the question. Following him, we might say that "modern literature" consists of all those literary works which people of the present time find worth reading, no matter when they were first written.
In that case, we are saying that we can still distinguish, following Harold Bloom, a canon of specifically literary works. The modern literary canon is enormous, and that is one of the great characteristics of the contemporary period. In time past, people in Europe or the United States read almost nothing but the Bible, the Greek and Latin classics, and works written in English in their own age.
The later twentieth century has been an "age of discovery" in a new sense. Diligent readers and courageous publishers have been recovering unknown works of literature from distant periods and cultures and discovering their interest for today. Bloom lists several thousand works from every age and clime at the end of his work, too many for any one reader ever to be able to read in a lifetime.
These works are part of modern literature because they are being read
by those people who today are creating modern literature. No one can write
without first having been a reader, any more than one can teach without
having been taught. Literary creation is not a spontaneous natural act,
it is a cultural activity rooted in a long history. Bloom suggests that
no one can write works of literature without being rooted in a literary
tradition. In times past that tradition was mainly national; today it is
more and more global. Yet, Bloom also claims, no writer can avoid the works
of certain giant figures in the tradition, the most outstanding of whom
is Shakespeare. In the lengthy Preface added to the Second Edition
(1997) of his The Anxiety of Influence, Bloom develops some even
more radical ideas about the central place of Shakespeare. (More recently
developed into The Invention of the Human). He quotes Emerson's
"Shakespeare: Or, the Poet" in Representative Men (1850):
Shakespeare is as much out of the category of eminent authors as he is out of the crowd. He is inconceivably wise; the others, conceivably. A good reader can, in a sort, nestle into Plato's brain, and think from thence; but not into Shakespeare's. We are still out of doors. For executive faculty, for creation, Shakespeare is unique. No man can imagine it better.... ...He wrote the airs for all our modern music: he wrote the text of modern life... all the sweets and terrors of human lot lay in his mind as truly but as softly as the landscape lies on the eye. (pages xiv-xvi)Bloom's main idea deriving from these lines he has already stated earlier in the text: "Shakespeare largely invented us. The invention of the human, as we know it, is a mode of influence far surpassing anything literary." (xiii-xiv) The whole essay is written in a deliberately provocative manner, in order to dramatize his opposition to the American and French Cultural Materialists and others who wish to eliminate Shakespeare from their canon. Bloom sees their rejection as a proof of the rightness of his idea: "They are sufferers of the anxieties of Shakespeare's influence." (xix)
At the start of his discussion of the way he believes Shakespeare was obliged to "write Marlowe out of his system", Bloom suggests two "influences" on Shakespeare: "The Bible and Chaucer taught Shakespeare some of his secrets in representing human beings" (xxii) and a little later he presents a fuller reflexion on the Shakespearean synthesis:
If there ever has been a universal literary art, that art is Shakespeare's, an art that seemed nature to his contemporaries, and that has become nature for us. If there is any mystery to Shakespeare, it is in his large usurpa tion of "nature" and of all literary art before him that, to him, seemed useful for his purposes. Ovid, Chaucer, and Marlowe fused into Shakespeare's composite precursor, as his contemporaries evidently understood. (xxix)
No matter what one makes of Bloom's overall argument, Chaucer and Shakespeare must, it seems, still be seen as the two great "fathers" of the English-language literary canon, whether we consider that fathers are a good or a bad thing depending on other criteria. The fact that no one writing today has any inclination to imitate the ways in which they wrote does not diminish their importance and influence. For Bloom, Shakespeare ranks so high that no one can avoid him, for he writes us all. For Shakespeare, Chaucer was a powerful influence. Which brings us to our topic.
Shakespeare read Chaucer. Of that there is no doubt. Two books in particular have been devoted to examining the works by Chaucer which Shakespeare read and the ways in which he under- stood them: Ann Thompson's Shakespeare's Chaucer (1978) and E. Talbot Donaldson's more poetically titled The Swan at the Well (1985). Neither is particularly striking in the way Bloom is striking. From such studies we learn that there were a number of editions of Chaucer's works available to Shakespeare, a sign of the modernity Chaucer was felt to possess in the 16th century. He may have owned Thynne's edition of 1532, that was reprinted in 1542 and 1550, or perhaps it was the new edition made by Stow in 1561. He may later have had a copy of Speght's editions, either of 1598 or of 1602, but he had certainly read Chaucer early in his career, at a very formative moment.
What did Shakespeare find in Chaucer? What particularly affected him? Surely many things, as Bloom suggests; he did not leave a diary or an autobiography to help us know. The present study will focus in particular on some ambivalent attitudes to romantic love, beginning with an incident in Chaucer's Knight's Tale that Shakespeare seems to have found of particular interest. It will be helpful to summarize the tale briefly. The Knight's Tale is a rather strange story about a love triangle, that Chaucer adapted in a much shortened form from Boccaccio's Teseida. Boccaccio had obtained the basic setting for his story from Statius's Thebais, but seems to have invented the central plot of the love of Palamon and Arcite for Emelye, in which Chaucer found a fine example of the strange ways of Fortune in the lives of people. Boccaccio claimed to be writing in order to bring pressure to bear on the cruel lady of his own desiring, a certain Filomena, about whom nothing is known. This aspect of his work is not adapted by Chaucer, naturally.
The initial scene is one familiar to many from the beginning of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, with Theseus returning to Athens with the Amazon Hippolyta as his bride. There Shakespeare was almost certainly drawing directly on Chaucer. As they near Athens, they encounter a group of grieving women whose husbands have been killed at Thebes during the struggle for power between Oedipus's two sons. Creon has taken power and has forbidden the burial of those who fought against the city, the husbands of these women who ask Theseus to have pity on them. Theseus rides at once to Thebes, kills Creon and much of his army, and razes the city.
Among the Theban dead the Athenian pillagers find two cousins, Palamon and Arcite, who are not quite dead. For no clear reason, Theseus decides to take them back to Athens as perpetual prisoners. One day, from their prison window they see Hippolyta's sister Emelye and both fall madly in love with her. From that moment the two brothers-in-arms become deadly rivals, each eager to kill the other.
By chance, Arcite is set free by Theseus at the request of a mutual friend but is forbidden ever to return to Athens. Unable to be near Emelye he pines away until his face is so changed that he ventures back to Athens under a false name and gets a job at Theseus's court as a simple page. Years pass. One day in May Palamon manages to drug his jailers and escape from prison. By chance both head for the same forest grove just outside Athens, Arcite to enjoy the springtime and Palamon to hide. By chance Palamon overhears Arcite talking to himself, identifying himself and lamenting his wretched lot, for as a lowly servant he can hardly expect to be able to woo Hippolyta's sister.
Palamon comes storming out of his hiding-place and challeng- es Arcite. In a last remnant of chivalry, Arcite says that he will bring armour and weapons on the next day so that they can fight fairly and equally. So we reach the scene evoked in the title of this paper. On the next morning Arcite brings the armour, they courteously help each other arm, then they set about trying to kill one another. That is how Theseus and all the court find them, hacking away, up to their knees in each other's blood, when by chance they come riding out to hunt in just that grove.
Theseus stops the fight, asks who they are and what they are doing. Palamon at once tells Theseus that they are his mortal enemies, and asks him to kill both of them, so that at least Arcite cannot have Emelye if he cannot. Theseus is quite prepared to kill them but the women all fall on their knees and plead for mercy. Theseus, as representative of common sense, then makes a speech summing up the outsider's view of the situation:
The god of love, a, benedicite!
How mighty and how greet a lord is he!
Ayeyns his might ther gaineth none obstacles.
He may be cleped a god for his miracles;
For he kan maken, at his owene gyse,
Of everich herte as that him list divyse.
Lo heere this Arcite and this Palmoun,
That quitly weren out of my prisoun,
And mighte han lived in Thebes roially,
And witen I am hir mortal enemy,
And that hir deth lith in my might also;
And yet hath Love maugree hir eyen two,
Brought hem hider bothe for to die.
Now looketh, is nat that an heigh folye?
Who may been a fool, but if he love?
But this is yet the beste game of alle,
That she for whom they han this jolitee
Kan hem therfore as muche thank as me.
She woot namoore of al this hoote fare,
By God, than woot a cokkow or an hare!
But all moot ben assayed, hoot and coold;
a man moot ben a fool, or yong or oold...
The irony is laid on with a heavy trowel and Theseus delights in it. The use of the word "folly" is central to the ambiguity of the whole situation. A "fool" in a story is generally someone the readers are invited to laugh at, but "folly" is another word for madness and Theseus is following many ancient writers, beginning with Hesiod, in saying that Love is a power that drives people crazy, alienating them morally and socially.
The scene certainly seems to confirm his opinion. Here are two cousins, so close they were like blood brothers, ready to die for one another in battle, who deliberately set about trying to kill one another for the sake of a woman who, to crown it all, has never been given a chance to know of their love and choose between them, or reject them both. There can be no doubt that Chaucer casts serious doubt on the idea that love for a woman ennobles the man, or that romantic love is a beautiful thing.
The setting has its importance. The forest lies away from the city and in contrast to it, just as the lovers have turned their backs on rational behaviour and the ways of civilized society. The madness inspired by their passion separates them from society as from human reason. This kind of symbolic use of the landscape is surely not new to this tale, but it gives added intensity. The fact that, in Middle English, the word "wood" also had the meaning "crazy" is not exploited by Chaucer, but they are indeed "Wood in a wood: Madmen in a forest".
What is this "crazy love", known in Greek as 'mania'? What is the nature of the power that has so disrupted all the bases of social and personal relationships? It all came about in a flash, with Palamon looking through his prison window:
He cast his eye upon Emelya,
And therwithal he bleynte and cride, 'A!'
As though he stongen were unto the herte. (1077-1079)
Arcite thinks he is fed up with the prison and tries lovingly to comfort him, but Palamon explains:
This prison caused me nat for to crye,
But I was hurt right now thurghout myn ye
Into myn herte, that wole my bane be.
The fairnesse of that lady that I see
Yond in the gardyn romen to and fro
Is cause of al my crying and my wo.
Whereupon Arcite looks out and sees Emelye:
And with that sighte hir beautee hurte him so,
That if that Palamon was wounded sore,
Arcite is hurt as muche as he, or moore
And with a sigh he seyde pitously:
'The fresshe beautee sleeth me sodeynly
Of hire that rometh in the yonder place,
And but I have hir mercy and hir grace,
That I may seen hire at leeste weye,
I nam but deed; ther nis namoore to seye.'
Modern readers in search of psychological subtleties often complain that Chaucer never makes a clear distinction between Palamon and Arcite, they might as well be the same person. At the same time, they are bewildered that Emelye remains a passive shadow, never described in any detail. What is it, they wonder, that the "lovers" see in her and why do they from the very beginning use words like "wound" and "bane", "sleeth" and "deed"? Most important of all, how seriously is the reader expected to take all this?
It is certainly unclear what tone Chaucer is using at this point. Are we meant to sympathize with the lovers or adopt the mocking stance of Theseus? The fact that Chaucer leaves his readers with these uncomfortable questions is one reason why he is well placed to head the list of "modern English writers". He is very careful to leave his readers to interpret his text without any dictatorial author breathing down their necks telling them what they should feel. The reader has to do the reading alone.
The Knight's Tale is about a triangle, two equally weighted male lovers infatuated with a woman who is nothing but a distant vision. Very many "romantic" plots have been written with that as their main conflict. The question, of course, is which of the two if either should get the lady. The figure three is a terribly inconvenient one in human relationships, where two is company and three is a crowd. Whence Palamon's and Arcite's eagerness to get rid of the other, in order to arrive at the more convenient two: a duo is capable of duet, as of duel; failing that, each can withdraw as the ultimate one.
When the triangle arises, death is bound to loom, for it is an unstable, potentially tragic form. It is also, oddly enough, a situation hard to take very seriously. Instead of offering the spectacle of deepening psychological unity or conflict, the two rival members of the trio are all the time glaring at one another and attempting to elbow each other out of the picture, if possible over the edge of a cliff.
Now Boccaccio's tale aspires to epic heights and since these are ancient Greeks he is able to raise the triangle to sublime dimensions by making Palamon a devotee of Venus, Arcite of Mars, and Emelye, poor helpless virgin, of Diana the chaste, the enemy of marriage. Theseus's more practical solution to the problem is to give them a year to gather a hundred friends each and then hold a tournament, the winner of which will be given Emelye, rather as someone winning a prize at a funfair is given a stuffed bear. Emelye has nothing to say.
A year quickly passes, especially since Chaucer condenses Boccaccio's poem considerably. Before the tournament begins, each of the three goes to pray in a temple of their protecting divinity. Palamon prays to Venus to be given Emelye. Arcite, being Mars' man and therefore warlike, simply asks for victory. Each receives a favourable sign in reply. Emelye asks Diana to stay unmarried, but Diana appears in person to tell her she will have to marry one of the two.
The whole tale in Chaucer serves to explore the question of how things happen to people, whether there is any kind of presiding providence or determining power in life. In a sense it is not mainly about love at all. The climax shows the gods arguing and looking for a way out of their dilemma. Venus and Mars have a complex mythical relationship, being at the same time symbols of incompatible realities (beauty and violence) and secret lovers despite Venus's marriage to Hephaestus / Vulcan, another triangle. The solution found by dark mysterious Saturn is simple. Arcite only asked for victory, so he wins the tournament. Then a Fury rises from the ground, Arcite is thrown from his frightened horse, and dies of his injuries. Palamon, after a suitable period of mourning, marries Emelye.
It is necessary to summarize the contents of the Knight's Tale because we cannot assume that it is well known. Even more briefly, before moving on to see what Shakespeare made of all this, we should look at the other great love story that Chaucer adapted from Boccaccio and that Shakespeare also read and responded to, Troilus and Criseyde. This is the first great romance (in the modern sense) written in English and although it is based on the Italian, Chaucer has changed it in many ways.
It is set in Troy, during the siege by the Greeks under Agamemnon that the readers know will end in slaughter. Troilus is a son of king Priam and being young he cannot understand what men see in women, he mocks at Love. That is dangerous, for as he is passing by chance in a temple he glimpses a young widow praying there.
And suddenly he wex therewith astoned
And gan her bet behold in thrifty wise.
'O mercy, God'; thought he, 'where hast thou woned
That art so fair and goodly to devise?'
And of her look there gan to quicken
So great desire and such affection
That in his heartes bottom gan to sticken
Of her his fixed and deep impression
That suddenly him thought he felte dyen
Right with her look, the spirit in his hearte.
Blessed be Love, that folk can thus converte!
(Book 1, 274-308)
Troilus is as shaken as Palamon or Arcite, and in the same way. The first sight of a woman he has never seen before, and does not know, is enough to set him in a turmoil. He goes home and tries to analyze his feelings:
If no love is, O God, what feel I so?
And if love is, what thing and which is he?
If love be good, from whence cometh my woe?
If it be wikke, a wonder, thinketh me,
When every torment and adversitee
That com'th of him may to me savoury thinke,
For ay thirst I the more that I it drinke.
And if that at myn owne lust I brenne,
Fro whence cometh my wailing and my pleynte?
If harm agree me, whereto pleyne I thenne?
I noot ne why unweary that I fainte.
O quicke death, O sweete harm so quainte,
How may of thee in me such quantitee,
But if that I consent that so it be?
And if that I consent, I wrongfully
Compleyn, y-wis; thus possed to and fro,
All stereless within a boat am I
Amid the sea, betwixen windes two
That in contrary stonden everno.
Alas! what is this wonder maladye?
For heat of cold, for cold of heat I dye.
(Book 1, 400-420)
It is typical of Chaucer's modernity that he gives these words to Troilus without any indication that they are the translation of a sonnet by another Italian poet, Petrarch, and not part of Boccaccio's story. He is playing games with texts here, and with representations of turbulent feelings being analyzed painfully.
Criseyde knows nothing of Troilus's feelings, until she learns of them thanks to the efforts of Troilus's friend Pandarus who is her uncle. She is very disturbed, and unwilling to meet him. Then Troilus comes riding by chance past her house:
Criseyda gan all his chere espeyen,
And let so soft it in her herte sinke,
That to herself she seyde: 'Who gave me drinke?'
(Book 2, 649-651)
Now the drink she is thinking of is no simple glass of wine but a love-potion like that which caused so much trouble to Tristan and Isolde. Her reaction is not as violent as that of Troilus but still the narrator feels able to make some ironic comments on love at first sight:
Now mighte some envious jangle thus:
'This was a sudden love; how might it be
That she so lightly loved Troilus
Right for the firste sighte, yea, pardee?'
Now whoso seyth so, mote he never thee
For everything a 'ginning hath it neede
Ere all be wrought, withouten any drede.
For I say not that she so suddenly
Gave him her love, but that she gan enclyne
To like him first, and I have told you why;
And after that, his manhood and his pyne
Made love within her for to myne,
For which, by process and by good servyse,
He gat her love, and in no sudden wyse.
(Book 2, 666-679)
Pandarus continues his efforts, until at last Troilus and Criseyde find themselves in bed together one rainy night. Happiness seems to be theirs. Then disaster strikes. Criseyde's father is a prophet who has escaped from Troy to the Greek side after foreseeing how the siege will end. Now he arranges for Criseyde to join him in exchange for some Trojan prisoners. The lovers must part.
Troilus and Criseyde meet one last time. Criseyde's emotion is so strong that she looses consciousness and seems to Troilus to be dead. He laments over her, arranges her body for burial, draws his sword and prepares to kill himself: "There shall no death me fro my lady twinne." We are suddenly on the verge of tragedy, especially since the narrator has given no indication that she is not dead. As Troilus is on the point of stabbing himself, Criseyde revives and asks why his sword is drawn. He explains and she says she would have killed herself if she had found him dead.
The story continues, they part and soon Criseyde has found a new lover among the Greeks, Diomede, seeming to forget Troilus. In the end Troilus is killed by Achilles; his death has no link with the love plot, despite his efforts to fight with Diomede. In a last commentary on the events he has been recording, Chaucer shows Troilus's spirit rising to the heavens where he, like Theseus in the Knight's Tale, laughs at this world's vanities, of which romantic love, it now seems, is one. Only we know that in Boccaccio, the soul which rises to the heavens after death and smiles knowingly was not Troilus's, but Arcite's in the Teseida, from where Chaucer has taken the episode.
When the plot of a love tale involves a couple, one man and one woman, the outcome is usually comedy: either they overcome difficulties, marry, and live happily for ever; or else, if the love is not mutual but unrequited, the unfortunate one is left pining and frustrated. The alternative outcome is tragic, that which Troilus and Criseyde narrowly escape and which Shakespeare depicted in Romeo and Juliet. No work in the English canon can be more modern than that, judging by the fact that a new film version of it has only recently been released. There is a power in its depiction of adolescent love that seems to have particular attraction today. It may be that in the play, Shakespeare single- handed invented the concept of adolescence.
Now we must turn to Shakespeare's reading of Chaucer. Late in his career Shakespeare wrote a tragedy entitled Troilus and Cressida and after he retired, he collaborated with Fletcher to produce a version of the Knight's Tale, entitled Two Noble Kinsmen. Here, however, our interest is not in those plays, but in earlier works, Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet is based on a poem by Arthur Brooke that was first published in 1562; Brooke's poem translates a French tale by Boiastuau (1559) based on an Italian novella by Bandello (1554) who developed a legend reported by Luigi Da Porto (1530). Each version added something to the magic mix before Shakespeare brought it to the boil, and it was Brooke, not Shakespeare, who first saw the similarities between the Italian tale and Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde and introduced echoes designed to remind readers of the older tale. What Brooke found in Chaucer was the theme of the role of blind fate or chance in the development of events, as well as a certain way of using heightened styles of speech to represent extreme emotional torment.
Brooke, writing a poem that has a narratorial voice telling the story, could employ narratorial tone to express and provoke sympathy for the protagonists and stress the irony of situations. Shakespeare, as a dramatist, cannot employ that method, except perhaps in the two sonnets introduced at the start of Acts I and II, the first especially with its mention of "star-cross'd lovers" suggesting the degree to which the lovers are helpless victims of impersonal cosmic forces or pure chance.
One vital aspect of the power of love in both of Chaucer's works is the way in which it plunges the lovers into a private world of desire and joy, contrasting sharply with the events that dominate the society from which they have somehow detached themselves. A major part of the mythical appeal of Romeo and Juliet's love is the way in which they stand alone, young and lovely, against all the unlovely forces of the adult world around them. True, their first encounters are helped by Juliet's nurse, just as in Troilus and Criseyde it is Pandarus who brings the lovers to bed, but that is a passing detail. The tales move on toward their climaxes which are not union but separation.
Shakespeare was fully aware of the parallels between his lovers and Chaucer's; the differences, too, were important. Where Chaucer's Criseyde needs persuasion, Juliet at once takes the initiative; Chaucer's poem never convinces us that the affair needs to be kept secret, readers have the uneasy feeling that Troilus and Criseyde ought to have gone public and got married; the aborted suicide pact in Chaucer contrasts starkly with the only too successful one at the end of Romeo and Juliet.
We are so familiar with Romeo and Juliet, and so absorbed in the emotional flow prompted by its language, that the question never seriously arises as to the rightness of the children's actions. In particular, the actors playing the lovers are always young adults at least, obviously old enough to know what they are doing. It might be very different if the parts could be played by children in their very early teens, dressed accordingly. The theme of madness hardly arises in our minds, except in the feud of the two families, which is a madness we never fathom.
Yet the extreme violence of the lovers' reactions when Romeo has to leave Verona, the initial urge to suicide, and the absolute refusal of Juliet to consider her parents' feelings, or the possibility of a later reunion, might well be considered a form of hysterical madness corresponding to the obsessive desire of Palamon and Arcite to see each other dead. Only Shakespeare's text hurries us past such questions, making the parents of Juliet, especially, so unfair to her that we unthinkingly take the lovers' side. Brooke wrote a preface to his poem claiming that it was a moral tale demonstrating that death is the reward of sin (lust, disobeying parents, lying, frequenting drunken gossips and superstitious friars...) but no one has ever taken it seriously and his poem evokes the same sympathetic response as the play.
Fundamental to the action of Troilus and Criseyde, the Knight's Tale, and Romeo and Juliet is that strange moment at which a man glimpses a hitherto unknown young woman and immedi- ately "falls in love" with her. The moment in Shakespeare's play is left to the skill of the actor, for it happens without words and the first indication that it has happened is Romeo's question to a passing servant: "What lady's that...?" which the servant brushes off with an inexplicable but fateful "I know not, sir." Then Romeo finds his tongue to express his feelings:
O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright.
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
As a rich jewel in an Ethiop's ear--
Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear
(I. v. 43-6)
By the time Romeo first addresses Juliet at the start of the shared sonnet that unites them in their first kiss, the love has become mutual and it is too late when the Nurse tells Romeo who Juliet is a second later. That is the radical difference between Chaucer's stories and Shakespeare's, the immediate mutuality of intense feelings. Yet even in Shakespeare there is a feeling that men more easily fall in love than women, if not more madly in the end. Until this moment Romeo has been claiming to be madly in love with a Rosalind he has almost certainly never spoken to.
There are madmen in Romeo and Juliet, but they fight in the streets and among the tombs, not in woods. Perhaps, though, Shakespeare had Chaucer particularly in mind in the last, strange duel, between Romeo and Paris, the potential rivals for Juliet, at the door of her vault. Both believe she is dead, yet still they set out to kill one another and this scene of two young men fighting over a corpse again casts a less than simple light on the ennobling nature of romantic love.
The case is different when we turn to the play that Shakespeare wrote at almost the same time as Romeo and Juliet, inspired in part by The Knight's Tale: A Midsummer Night's Dream. This has become in modern times one of Shakespeare's most popular comedies. It is a very special play in being almost entirely drawn from Shakespeare's own fantasy, having no obvious "source" for its plot and characters, unlike Romeo and Juliet which stays very close to Brooke's poem. Yet Chaucer lurks behind the scenes.
The opening of A Midsummer Night's Dream parallels that of the Knight's Tale, Theseus approaching Athens with his Amazon bride. In Shakespeare too, Theseus is suddenly stopped by a voice calling for justice and blood. Only now it is the voice of Egeus and the blood is that of his own daughter Hermia, who is refusing to marry Demetrius, as her father wishes, and has eyes only for Lysander who loves her. Lysander argues that Demetrius is being inconstant, having first wooed and awakened intense love in another woman, Helena, who "Devoutly dotes, dotes in idolatry" on him (I.i. 109).
Shakespeare imitates the Knight's Tale's triangle of two virtually indistinguishable men both eager to marry the same woman, but this time the woman is fully aware of the situation and quite clear about her preferences. The potentially murderous male duo is interrupted in its strife by Helena's attempts to regain Demetrius's affection, the three have become four and the one passive Emelye has become the two dynamic women Hermia and Helena, united by their shared initial H but distinguished by their hair and their height (but few remember which is blond and which is taller).
The other indirect source underlying A Midsummer Night's Dream is a tale that it also enacts: the story of Pyramus and Thisbe found in Ovid. Now this story had a strong influence on the pre-Shakespearean development of the tale of Romeo and Juliet, and Shakespeare must have been aware of the parallels. In it, two young lovers defy their parents' enmity and set out to elope and marry in secret, but Thisbe arrives first at the nighttime rendez-vous in the woods, sees a lion and hides. Pyramus arrives, assumes that Thisbe is inside the lion, and stabs himself before she can come out of hiding. He dies in her arms and she kills herself with his sword. The grieving families are reconciled too late.
In A Midsummer Night's Dream, Hermia and Lysander decide to elope and agree to meet in a forest outside of Athens, no doubt that in which Palamon and Arcite tried to kill each other but also that in which Pyramus and Thisbe saw the lion. Demetrius and Helena follow them and it falls to Demetrius to crack the joke only latent in Chaucer: "And here am I, wood within this wood / Because I cannot meet my Hermia" (II. i. 192-3). In Shakespeare, though, another danger is awaiting them, a supernatural couple too, not Mars and Venus now, and not Chaucer's other influential and interfering couple Pluto and Proserpine from "The Merchant's Tale", but Titania and Oberon. They too are caught in a kind of triangle, a very odd one, since they both dote obsessively on a little Indian boy and hate each other intensely because of that.
Juliet's potion, if not Romeo's poison, is transformed into the love-kindling juice of the flower with a vulgar name that Puck is sent to fetch. Oberon plans to use it against Titania, and thinks to use it to help bring Helena and Demetrius together, but thanks to Puck's mistake it produces a scene of murderous madmen fighting in the forest adapted from the Knight's Tale. This starts in the famous scene in which Lysander, his eyes anointed by mistake, awakes to see Helena and "falls in love" with her, abandoning Hermia to the dangers of the forest. Helena thinks he is mocking her. Demetrius's eyes are duly anointed in turn, he too awakes to the sight of Helena, pursued now by the amorous Lysander, and the triangle is turned about. Helena is now the focus of two lovers and Hermia of none, as she finds on entering.
So love produces hatred and conflict, as Hermia and Helena embark on their celebrated slanging match while the two men draw their swords. All of this confirms Puck's famous words spoken a little earlier:
Lord, what fools these mortals be! (III. ii. 115)
That echoes very closely Theseus's words in the forest quoted earlier: "Who may been a fool, but if he love?"; worse, Puck declares that "those things do best please me / That befall prepost'rously" (line 120-1). As onlooking divinity, Puck has little of the dignity of Chaucer's dark Saturn, although Saturn's solution to the problem of who will marry Emelye may also seem fairly preposterous, if not quite puckish.
When Lysander and Demetrius march off elbow to elbow to imitate Palamon and Arcite, Shakespeare has exhausted all possible combinations of the four mad lovers, of whom Hermia alone has all our sympathy, since we know what has happened but she does not. The madness is prevented from reaching tragic dimensions by the efforts of Puck; Hermia has already evoked the scene in the Knight's Tale when she asks Demetrius if he did not kill Lysander, and invites him to kill her, "being o'er shoes in blood" (III. ii. 48).
The ultimate solution, with judicious application of antidote producing the right pair of mutual lovers, is highly satisfactory in the comic vein but hardly gives firm confidence in the enduring powers of romantic love. At the same time, the adventures of Titania with translated Bottom, which modern productions tend to render explicitly sexual, cast a wry light on the conventional idea that "love is a many splendoured thing". This play stresses to what an extent "beauty lies in the eye of the beholder" and how easy it is to see wrongly.
It is significant that when Theseus comes riding with the court to the forest to hunt, in place of Palamon and Arcite knee- deep in blood, he finds two couples happily asleep, no longer mad but in a perfect harmony of love, they have no need of any tournament.
In all this, Shakespeare is seriously challenging our habitual sentimental responses to Romeo and Juliet and the other love stories in which a momentary glimpse is enough to produce a lifetime of love, and death too. The power of love, he seems to be saying, is perhaps nothing more than a little natural magic, it changes in a flash. The fairies invoked to bless the marriage beds at the end of the play are far from benevolent and have caused near-chaos.
Love turns out to be a power that produces madness in human hearts, battles in forests, murder potential or actual, and suicide at the bitter end. The consequences of love are very like those that Chaucer depicted (in the Knight's Tale) in paintings in the temple of Mars: chaos, treason, deceit, and slaughter. Then if it is enough for men to see a woman for a second for this power to take control of their lives, and wreak such havoc, surely it cannot be so very wonderful, the romantic tradition notwithstanding?
The last moments of Romeo and Juliet are usually hailed by our students as a triumph of the reconciling power of love, since (as Bottom says at the end of his play) "the wall is down that parted their fathers" (V. i. 337). They fail to note that both families have lost their only children, that Romeo's mother is dead of grief, and that there is no future for any of the survivors. The true power of love lies not in the verbal delights of the "balcony scene" but in the dark forest outside the walls where lions prowl and madness has free play, wading through brothers' blood.
In these two plays, as he portrayed the doom of Romeo and Juliet, then the multiple comic errors of the Dream, Shakespeare was all the time confronting the questions Chaucer had raised. The Madmen fighting in the Forest stand as a sign of love's deeply ambiguous power: it may be earnest madness and lead to death, or it may be comic folly, so preposterous we can only laugh.
Of all the madmen in all the forests, Bottom is undoubtedly the happiest, for he was an ass wed for a night with the Queen of fairies, and that thanks to a spell cast by Titania's husband, Oberon himself. When Bottom summarizes his experience in the forest, we hear no madness but (admittedly preposterous) echoes of ecstasy: '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, nor his heart to report, what my dream was.' (IV. i. 209-212). The fact that these words echo and in some sense parody St Paul's (I Corinthians 2:9), who is echoing Isaiah 64:4, only serves to make us more alert to ambiguities underlying any attempt to talk about the effects of any kind of love, even the most wonderful.
Shakespeare turns once more to the Knight's Tale as he gives Theseus a speech corresponding to that in the Knight's Tale in which to offer a commonsense view of the lovers' explanations. The essential message is the same as in Chaucer, quoted above, mocking at the power of love, but Shakespeare widens it and the result has become a famous set piece that challenges not only the value of love but the validity of all imaginative writing, including the play in which the lines come, and therefore the lines themselves:
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:
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold;
That is the madman: the lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen's beauty in a brow of Egypt:
The poet's eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
(V. i. 4-17)
The irony is even stronger in Shakespeare than in Chaucer, for we know that his Theseus is completely mistaken, for their madness was no dream, and the poet has turned love's airy nothings into something very real and very complex.
The complexity extends to a possible last echo of Chaucer in Shakespeare. After his death, Troilus's soul rose to the heavens and saw the vanity of the world and love, in a detail that Boccaccio originally gave to Arcite. In A Midsummer Night's Dream's inset play The Most Lamentable Comedy and Most Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisbe, acted to celebrate the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta, poor Pyramus assumes that Thisbe is dead, and stabs himself: "Thus die I, thus, thus, thus! / Now am I dead, / Now am I fled; / My soul is in the sky." (V. i. 289-292) although he does not tell us what conclusion he draws from this new, celestial vision of things, less open to sublime dimensions than Troilus's.
Shakespeare, reading Chaucer, has written two works about falling in
love. One seems to the general audience utterly true and tragic, the other
quite fantastic and comic; yet on second thoughts, Romeo and Juliet
is very much a comedy, and an unlikely one at that, while A Midsummer
Night's Dream offers very much more reality than at first meets the
eye, although its tragic dimensions remain mostly at the level of latent
shadows. It is hard to say which is indeed the truer work, which has the
more modern view of love.
The Riverside Chaucer. Third Edition. General Editor, Larry D. Benson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. 1987.
W. Shakespeare: A Midsummer Night's Dream. Edited by Harold F. Brooks. Arden Edition. 1979.
W. Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet. Edited by Brian Gibbons. Arden Edition. 1980.
Bloom, Harold. The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry. Second Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1973, 1997.