Literary Analysis of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Conduct a close reading of a passage (~25–100 lines) from William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream that engages with the cycle theme of Animals, People, and Power. Construct an interpretive thesis about how this passage relates to a larger theme in the play and paraphrase specific textual evidence from the passage to support your claim. How do literary features—including character, setting, plot, diction, imagery, and figurative devices—connect your specific passage to the play as a whole? How and why do Shakespeare’s literary decisions enhance the deeper meaning and dramatic impact of the passage?
Your final paper will be about 4–5 pages in length (no more than 6) and will be worth 35% of your writing grade.
- Make specific, clear, arguable claims
- Produce unified, cohesive body paragraphs that contain arguable topic sentences and well-selected evidence from the primary source
- Develop effective transitions between ideas
- Adopt the appropriate stance, style, and genre conventions of literary analysis (including close reading, formal analysis, and paraphrase)
- Practice process-oriented writing and learn flexible strategies for generating, revising, editing, and proofreading drafts while also reflecting on the process of writing itself
Before you begin brainstorming for this assignment, make sure you have read the following:
- Shakespeare, William. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Signet Classics, 1998.
- Lupton, Julia. “Literary Analysis and Close Reading.” Humanities Core Handbook: Animals, People, and Power 2020–2021. XanEdu, 2020. pp. 41–9.
- Short, Gretchen. “Evaluating Essay Organization and Transitioning.” Humanities Core Handbook: Animals, People, and Power 2020–2021. XanEdu, 2020. pp. 178–87.
The Writing Process
Your second essay assignment this year in Humanities Core is a literary analysis of a passage from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The first step in the prewriting process will be to select a passage from the play that relates to the cycle theme of Animals, People, and Power. This play can certainly be characterized by the shifting power relationships between both human and non-human actors. And though it is debatable if there are in fact any real animals on stage in this play, the text is rife with representations of animals: in metaphors, symbols, idiomatic expressions, off-stage references, and guises that various characters assume. The passage you choose should be both thematically and formally fruitful in terms of the choices Shakespeare makes in diction, imagery, and/or figurative devices.
The length of your passage selection will ultimately depend upon the dramatic logic of the scene and the interpretive claim you hope to develop. A short monologue may be rich enough to form the basis of an entire paper; alternatively, a longer scene in which multiple characters interact might require the selection of specific sections on which to focus your analysis. Don’t settle for the first thing you read or even the first passage you explicate; instead, read multiple scenes aloud and brainstorm what different passages might enable you to write about in terms of the dynamics that you find most compelling in the drama. As Professor Lupton’s lectures have demonstrated, the cycle theme of Animals, People, and Power connects to various motifs in the play, including by not limited to waking and dreaming life; deception, intoxication, and trickery; folly and wisdom; gendered roles and relationships; holiday, sport, and seasonal change; metamorphosis and transformation; the natural and supernatural world; romantic love and animal attraction; theater as human and nonhuman practice; reason, passion, and the imagination, etc.
As you learned in Professor Lupton’s Humanities Core Handbook chapter, literary scholars use what we call “close reading”—the formal description of carefully selected portions of a literary work—to cull textual evidence as the basis for their interpretations (41–9). In the chapter, Lupton models literary analysis of a sample passage in Act 2, Scene 1 in which the mischievous Puck is introduced to the audience. Among his many guises is, unsurprisingly, that of an animal: a “filly-foal” who startles “a fat and bean-fed horse” (Shakespeare 2.1.45–6). Ultimately, Lupton links the passage to a larger theme of the folk wisdom found in storytelling. You need not know as much about Elizabethan culture as a Shakespearian scholar to perform an effective close reading for this assignment; rather, the real work is to make inferences and connections from the playwright’s formal decisions. Your seminar instructor may provide you with specific instructions about how to conduct your prewriting for this assignment; what follows are some guidelines for close reading that work well for many students.
One thing to pay attention to as you read the play is the difference between the figurative and literal register. In the scene that Lupton explicates, Puck brags that he can literally transform into a horse or a crab apple if it serves his master Oberon. Later in the same act, in contrast, Helena uses a series of figurative references to animals to describe her unrequited love for Demetrius: “The dove pursues the griffin; the mild hind / Makes speed to catch the tiger” (Shakespeare 2.1.232–3). These are figurative references, in the sense that there are no actual doves, griffins, or tigers in this scene. If your overall reading led you to an interest in, say, the topsy-turvy ways that gender maps onto romantic pursuit in this play, then you could select the larger conversation between Demetrius and Helena (2.1.188–244) as the passage for your analysis. These 56 lines of complex dialogue between two characters are rife with vivid imagery, animal metaphor, and classical allusion—certainly ample fodder for a detailed close reading.
Once you have selected a passage, identify how it fits into the larger structure of the plot, that is, in terms of where it occurs (in the exposition, rising action, climax, or denouement). Who is speaking and what information does the audience have about these characters? How do characters interact with one another and with the setting of the scene? What are the rhetorical dimensions of a scene in terms of who is speaking to whom and for what purpose? Does the scene establish a power dynamic between the characters? What is the overall mood?
Next, identify as many specific literary features in the text as possible. What particular choices in diction and prosody—including rhyme or blank verse, inflections, and sounds effects—seem most notable? How does Shakespeare employ imagery and what kinds of sensory experience are captured by vivid descriptions? What kinds of comparisons and associations are drawn through the use of figurative devices like allusion, metaphor, simile, personification, hyperbole, and symbolism? What rhetorical work (expressive, illustrative, or argumentative) does his decision to use figurative language accomplish? Is Shakespeare giving his actors any implicit clues as to how to use their voices, bodies, or props?
Make sure you understand the full range of references in your passage by looking up unfamiliar words, idioms, and cultural allusions. Much of this information can be found in the footnotes, but you should also consult a scholarly reference source like the New Oxford Shakespeare when necessary. This resource also usefully links directly to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), which as you know, can give much more extensive definitional and etymological information than a standard dictionary. Let’s take again the example of Helena’s odd metaphor of prey pursuing its predator: among her paired inversions is a “mild hind” that chases a tiger (2.1.232–3). A quick glance at the footnotes shows that “hind” is another word for a doe, or female deer. The OED entry, however, goes further, noting that a hind specifically refers to “a female deer in and after its third year,” that is, a deer old enough for “hind-hunting.” This detail might be useful to a larger interpretive connection about Helena’s age and readiness for marriage. Or, take for instance a classical allusion a line earlier: “Apollo flies, and Daphne holds the chase” (2.1.231). The footnotes explain that this mythological reference follows the same inverted logic as the doe and the tiger (as you remember from your reading of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, it was Daphne who fled Apollo). A subsequent search of “Daphne” in Oxford Reference reminds us that Apollo’s “amorous pursuit” led to Daphne’s transformation into a tree, information which could connect directly to a theme of romantic wooing as a kind of violence in the play as a whole—and, too, the repeated references to “wood” in the passage, which could also mean “mad” or “crazy” in Shakespeare’s day (remember, the OED can also help in figuring out obsolete or archaic usages of words).
As you annotate, track such patterns and repetitions (of the same word, same phrase, same image, etc.). In the passage mentioned above, the words “woo,” “wood,” and “wooed” are repeated extensively and often seem to pun with one another. Try to identify oppositions (e.g., natural/unnatural, animal/human, love/hate, truth/falsehood, etc.), which will often point you in the direction of useful thematic contrasts or tensions. Helena, for instance, juxtaposes cowardice and valor in her description of the roles that she and Demetrius play (2.1.234). Oftentimes, the most useful part of a literary passage from an analytic point of view is one that sticks out or somehow breaks a pattern. Be on the lookout for anomalies: anything in the text that deviates from what is standard, normal, or expected. Demetrius all but threatens Helena with rape as he chastises her for immodestly pursuing him (2.1.214–9)—a jarring break from the logic of the rest of the passage.
Once you have thoroughly explicated your passage, you will have to strategically organize how to present this evidence in support of an interpretive claim about a larger motif in the play. Much of the evidence in the body of your essay will take the form of a paraphrase. Unlike summary, which aims to condense and shorten the original material, paraphrase explains and amplifies specific details. As Lupton notes in her Handbook chapter, literary scholars use carefully selected and contextualized direct quotations of words and phrases to guide the reader towards their interpretive argument. While your paraphrase may move in chronological order as you describe and contextualize the passage for your reader, you need not organize the body of your essay by the order that your literary evidence appears in the passage.
Likewise, while it can be useful to cluster particular formal features by type as you plan your essay, try to organize your body paragraphs not around what kinds of evidence you have located but rather what work that evidence accomplishes in the logic of the passage as a whole (and, indeed, in the development of a larger motif in the play). Working drafts of this assignment can sometimes read like a laundry list of formal features. Essays that fall into that trap are often driven by a thesis statement focused on types of literary evidence rather than its meaning (e.g., “Shakespeare uses animal metaphors, imagery, and classical allusions to show that something is out of order in Helena’s pursuit of Demetrius”). To achieve the learning goals of this assignment, however, your final essay must do more than simply catalogue the literary dimensions of your selected passage. In addition to honing the structure of your claims and organization of your body paragraphs, you will be working in seminar on crafting effective connections and transitions between ideas in this assignment. This will happen over multiple drafts that receive peer and instructor feedback, so be prepared to invest time and energy in the process of revision.
Lupton, Julia. “Literary Analysis and Close Reading.” Humanities Core Handbook: Animals, People, and Power 2020–2021. XanEdu, 2020. pp. 41–9.
Shakespeare, William. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Signet Classics, 1998.