In J. B. Priestley's Arthurian fantasy, The Thirty-First of June, an exasperated character asks, "What's imagination? Nobody tells us—at least nobody who has an imagination" ([London: Mandarin, 1961], 14). But, of course, in A Midsummer Night's Dream, somebody with a truly extraordinary imagination has told us a great deal. As Stanley Wells says, "There is a sense in which the entire play is about the power of the imagination: it has been called Shakespeare's Ars Poetica" (Shakespeare: A Life in Drama [New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1995], 64).
The subject undoubtedly seemed more important to Shakespeare than it sometimes does to us, not only because he was a playwright and an actor and therefore made his art and living from imagination, but also because some Renaissance thinkers gave imagination credit for far greater powers than we usually ascribe to it. One of the best examples of just how large those powers were supposed to be is Montaigne's "Of the Force of Imagination." Montaigne's essay is never (well, hardly ever) mentioned as a source for A Midsummer Night's Dream, but it probably should be.
Many scholars have assumed that Shakespeare could have read Montaigne only in John Florio's translation, published approximately eight years after the writing of A Midsummer Night's Dream. However, Shakespeare and Florio had a number of shared acquaintances and, of course, a shared patron—the Earl of Southampton. Florio's translation was "published in 1603, but circulating in manuscript long before that" (Dennis Kay, Shakespeare: His Life, Work, and Era [New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1992], 155). And there is another very strong possibility: Montaigne's first essays (including the one on imagination) were in print in French by 1580, and Peter Levi declares that in his youth Shakespeare "learned French well" (The Life and Times of William Shakespeare [New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1988], 34). Certainly, Shakespeare used French often enough in his plays, most obviously in Henry V but also in Twelfth Night, Hamlet, and elsewhere. At the very least, "Of the Force of Imagination" can be taken as an indicator of what educated people thought on the subject at the time Shakespeare was writing his play.
Montaigne tells of a man who "was found starke dead upon the scaffold, wounded only by the stroke of imagination" (Essays Volume One, translated by John Florio [London: J. M. Dent & Sons Limited, 1910, reprinted 1935], 92-93). In the light of this, the fear of Bottom and company that their imaginary lion might do real harm seems a little less farfetched (though not much less ludicrous). Montaigne's examples include a man "who dreamed of hornes in his head" and "brought them forth the next morning" (93); women transformed into men; and, interestingly, given Theseus' intense admiration for his hounds, "dogs, who for sorrow of their Masters death are seene to die" (101).
Montaigne argues (appositely for the mechanicals in A Midsummer Night's Dream) "that the principall credit of visions, of enchantments, and such extraordinary effects, proceedeth from the power of imaginations, working especially in the mindes of the vulgar sort" (94). He also has words that might have been written especially for the young lovers, "Burning youth (although asleepe) is often therewith so possessed and enfolded, that dreaming it doth satisfie and enjoy her amorous desires" (93). In addition, Montaigne gives an example of a man whose "fond doting was in time remedied by another kind of raving," a summary which fits Titania, Lysander, Demetrius, and Oberon, among others.
The end of Shakespeare's play, where Oberon announces, "To the best bride bed will we, / Which by us shall blessed be" (5.1.405-6) may strike modern audiences as a somewhat puzzling ritual, even if we remember that Oberon and Titania have virtually been given the status of pagan gods. However, one of the powers which Montaigne ascribes to imagination is enlightening here. He says, "So it is, that by experience wee see women to transferre divers markes of their fantasies, unto children they beare in their wombes" (102).
Oberon, king of shadows, and Titania, goddess of the moon, have come to ensure that the perilous realm of dreams is safe for their former lovers, Theseus and Hippolyta, and for those other lovers who have wandered through their magical forest. There will be no nightmares on this midsummer's eve, and, even if there are, when the sunlight returns, it will bring no reminders of bad dreams. Oberon promises, "So shall all the couples three / Ever true in loving be; / And the blots of nature's hand / Shall not in their issue stand" (5.1.409-412).
Harold Bloom declares, "Nothing by Shakespeare before A Midsummer Night's Dream is its equal, and in some respects nothing by him afterward surpasses it" (Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human [New York: Riverhead Books, 1998], 148). In this play, Shakespeare's imagination, like that of his audience, has been set free. The plot and subplots were largely his own, and he invented and combined them with such wild panache that even while we watch, it is an astonishment to see Celtic fairies, English mechanicals, Greek myths, and courtly lovers skipping to the same delightful music. What better demonstration of the power of imagination could Shakespeare have conjured up than this gorgeous gallimaufry? And yet, there is more to the play than this because it contains the suggestion that dreams and imagination do, in fact, wield the enormous powers that Montaigne believed they did. Not only do poets provide "a local habitation and a name" for airy nothings, they may also shadow forth realities, transform dunderheads, and unite audiences into a shared epiphany of the true glory of the shining world and the startling humans within it.
If this seems too much to claim in the cold light of the approaching millennium, I would point to the words of the American anthropologist and historian of science Loren Eiseley, who argues that it was imagination that first made us human. Man "was becoming something the world had never seen before—a dream animal—living at least partially within a secret universe of his own creation. . . . The unseen gods, the powers behind the world of phenomenal appearance, began to stalk through his dreams" (The Immense Journey [New York: Vintage Books, 1959], 120). Or as Shakespeare himself puts it in The Tempest, "We are such stuff as dreams are made on."
At the very least we may agree with the words that Rafael Sabatini puts into the mouth of a Renaissance prince, "Will you tell me what reality in all the world was not first a dream? Are not all things of human fashioning the fruit of dreams?" (The Romantic Prince [New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1929], 11). And we might wish that all dreams could bear fruit as perfect as this midsummer vision of Shakespeare's.