The Musical Structure of A Midsummer Night’s Dream

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is surely the most musical of Shakespeare’s plays. In its verse, its rhythm and even its structure, it is never far from musical forms of expression. One of history’s greatest Shakespearean interpreters and critics, Harley Granville Barker said of this piece, ‘it is less a play… than a musical symphony’, and that the verse in it has ‘the virtues of chamber music.’

It is almost as if the structural principles of a symphony are at work in the play’s plot – which is what, I think, Enid Welsford meant, in her book The Court Masque (1927), when she called it ‘a pattern, rather than a series of events occassioned by human character and action’. Note also Harold F Brooks’s reference to the plot’s ‘rhythmic design’ in his introduction to the Arden edition.

Music itself plays a huge part in the play. Song, dance, lullaby, instrumental and folk music are all part of the action, and no mere distraction. Titania’s fairies dance and sing to protect her. Titania falls asleep to a lullaby and is awakened by Bottom singing. The dance of Oberon and Titania symbolises their recovered amity. The winding of the horns announcing the hunt is symphonic, Shakespeare’s musical picture of the sunrise.

And then there is the verse, which constitutes 80% of the play. There is no greater variety of verse form in all Shakespeare; the court speaks in Shakespeare’s favoured iambic pentameter, but the fairies often use shorter song-like verse forms, such as broken couplets and trochaic tetrameters.

PUCK. Fairy king, attend, and mark;
I do hear the morning lark.
OBERON. Then, my queen, in silence sad,
Trip we after the night’s shade:
We the globe can compass soon,
Swifter than the wand’ring moon.
TITANIA. Come, my lord: and in our flight,
Tell me how it came this night,
That I sleeping here was found
With these mortals, on the ground.

As Brooks says, ‘When the spoken verse is so various in its forms, and so often lyrical in tone, the distance from dialogue to song is not great.’ There are many other examples of a musical approach to the verse – just look at Lysander and Hermia’s antiphonal duet in Act 1:

LYSANDER. The course of true love never did run smooth;
But either it was different in blood-
HERMIA. O cross! too high to be entrall’d to low.
LYSANDER. Or else misgraffed in respect of years-
HERMIA. O spite! too old to be engag’d to young-
LYSANDER. Or else it stood upon the choice of friends-
HERMIA. O hell! to choose love by another’s eyes.

As a producer and director, Granville Barker was concerned primarily with the proper performance of the play, and his guiding principle for A Midsummer Night’s Dream was the musical quality of the verse, as he explains in his celebrated Prefaces to Shakespeare:

In fine, Shakespeare has a theme, which only poetry can fully illuminate, and he trusts to poetry.

His describes the first scene as an ensemble piece between ‘a musical range of voices’, and brilliantly illuminates the strucutre of tone between them:

It is remarkable how much sheer sound, in quality, contrast, change, is made to contribute. Make as much of the stark meaning of it as you will; if the scene is sung to the wrong tunes (the comparison is, for once, irresistable), if the time is not adjusted, if the discords and the harmonies are not valued, its essential character will be obscured and lost. This must be to some extent true of any play: in the interpretation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream it is the dominating truth.

One final example from Granville Barker makes the point beautifully – Puck’s lullaby chant of appeasement:

On the ground
Sleep sound:
I’ll apply
To your eye,
Gentle lover, remedy.
When thou wak’st
Thou tak’st
True delight
In the sight
Of thy former lady’s eye:
And the country proverb known,
That every man should take his own,
In your waking shall be shown:
Jack shall have Jill;
Nought shall go ill;
The man shall have his mare again, and all shall be well.

Commenting on this passage, Granville Barker says:

No one, understanding the plain meaning of English and having any ear at all, can possibly go wrong over the speaking of that. It is as surely set to its own essential music as if it were barred and scored.


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