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A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Shakespeare’s Aristophanic Comedy

By Earl Showerman

 Abstract of a paper presented at the SOS/SF 2013 Joint Conference in Toronto


 “So far as native talent goes, there is no Greek dramatist that stands anywhere  near Shakespeare, though Aristophanes suggests him.”         John Jay Chapman,  Greek Genius and Other Essays (1915)

 “In all literature, no one has acquired as much well-earned notoriety for humorous obscenity as Aristophanes. Shakespeare is his rival and, I contend, deliberate disciple.”        Myron Stagman, The Burlesque Comedies of Aristophanes (2000)

Most of 20th century Shakespeare criticism did not consider the possibility that Shakespeare employed Greek dramatic sources in writing his plays. The reason for this is quite simple; the works of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes had largely not been translated or published in England by Shakespeare’s lifetime. In addition, the evidence that Greek poetry was not included in the typical curriculum of 16th century English grammar schools has reinforced most scholars’ conclusions that the playwright could not have been directly influenced by the Attic playwrights.

In his 1903 edition, Classical Mythology in Shakespeare, Yale University Professor Robert Kilburn Root voiced the opinion on Shakespeare’s ‘lesse Greek’ that presaged a century of scholarly neglect: “It is at any rate certain that he nowhere alludes to any characters or episodes of Greek drama, that they extended no influence whatsoever on his conception of mythology.”  A century later, little had changed as evidenced by A. D. Nuttall’s summary of the prevailing opinion on the playwright’s ignorance of the Greek drama. In “Action at a distance: Shakespeare and the Greeks” from Martindale and Taylor’s Shakespeare and the Classics (2004), Nuttal writes,

“That Shakespeare was cut off from Greek poetry and drama is probably a bleak truth that we should accept. A case can be made – and has been made – for Shakespeare’s having some knowledge of certain Greek plays, such as Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, Euripides’ Orestes, Alcestis, and Hecuba, by way of available Latin versions, but this, surely, is an area in which the faint occasional echoes mean less than the circumambient silence. When we consider how hungrily Shakespeare feeds upon Ovid, learning from him, or extending him at every turn, it becomes more evident that he cannot in any serious sense have found his way to Euripides.”

In a succeeding chapter in the same volume, “Shakespeare and Greek tragedy: strange relationship”, Michael Silk describes numerous “unmistakable” commonalities between Shakespeare and the Greeks, but again echoes the assertions of Root and Nuttall in stating, “There is no reason to suppose that Shakespeare ever encountered any of the Greek tragedians, either in the original language or otherwise.”

There exists, however, a century-old tradition of Shakespeare scholarship, including the works of W.W. Lloyd, H.R.D. Anders, Jonathan Bate, Sarah Dewar-Watson, and Claire McEachern who all recognized elements derived from Euripides’ Alcestis in the final scenes of both The Winter’s Tale and Much Ado about Nothing.  Renowned Greek scholars Gilbert Murray and H.D.F. Kitto, as well as Shakespeare scholars Jan Kott and Louise Schleiner, have argued that Aeschylus’ Oresteia influenced the writing of Hamlet.  George Stevens, J.A.K. Thompson, J. Churton Collins and Emrys Jones have variously suggested that Titus Andronicus was indebted to both Euripides’ Hecuba and Sophocles’ Ajax. A.D. Nuttall himself has argued for a Sophoclean influence on Timon of Athens, comparing it repeatedly to Oedipus at Colonus.  Nuttal nonetheless refers to his analysis as only pressing “an analogy” and he retreats from ever suggesting there was a direct influence on Shakespeare by Sophocles.  More recently, Professor Inga Stina-Ewbank has proposed that Aeschylus’ Agamemnon influenced Macbeth.  The proposition that Shakespeare employed Greek sources has also been supported by the scholarship of Professors Adrian Poole, Laurie Maguire, and Tanya Pollard.

Only one scholar has taken it upon himself to support the argument that Shakespeare was intimately acquainted with Athenian drama systematically, and that the refusal of scholars to consider these sources is a serious oversight. In Shakespeare’s Greek Drama Secret (2011), independent scholar Myron Stagman cites the many “striking, unmediated textual correspondences” between ancient Greek dramas and the plays of Shakespeare. Stagman concludes that William Shakspere of Stratford became “Shakespeare’ precisely because of his mastery of the Attic drama. His 330-page book begins by briefly describing the plots of the relevant dramas of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes, and catalogs many possible intertextual connections between the Greek dramas and Shakespeare plays.

Stagman is led to the conclusion, despite historical evidence to the contrary, that the Stratford grammar school curriculum must have included reading Homer, Lucian, Pindar, and the Athenian dramatists in the original language.  Stagman is also unique in asserting that Aristophanes directly influenced Shakespeare’s comedies, particularly as regards the Greek’s use of bawdry and the epilogues at the conclusion of seven of his eleven extant dramas. However, except for citing several specific Shakespeare allusions to passages from Aristophanes’ Frogs and Plutus, Stagman does not attempt to establish a broader basis for Aristophanic influence.

This paper proposes to extend the argument that recognizing Shakespeare’s debt to the Greek dramatists enhances our understanding the works themselves, and in so doing to challenge philologically the attribution of Shakespeare’s dramas. Establishing Shakespeare’s debt to Greek literature represents a particularly important element of the authorship challenge as none of the works of Aeschylus, Sophocles or Aristophanes had been published in England before or during the period that Shakespeare is assumed to have written his plays.  Sir Thomas Smith, on the other hand, who served as Edward de Vere’s tutor during his childhood, was known to have at least one edition of the comedies of Aristophanes, and co-produced Greek productions of the Plutus and the Peace at Queen’s College Cambridge between 1536 and 1546.

In this approach I owe a particular debt to Concordia University undergraduate, Andrew Werth, whose 2002 presentation, “Shakespeare’s ‘Lesse Greek’”, has inspired me to undertake a decade-long investigation into the Greek dramatic sources in a number of dramas: Hamlet, Macbeth, Timon of Athens, Troilus and Cressida, The Winter’s Tale, and Much Ado about Nothing.  This present examination explores the possible influence of Aristophanes’ comedies on the structure, plot, motifs, allusions, political allegory, burlesque, and epilogue in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In Shakespeare’s Festive Comedy, C.L. Barber identifies the singular importance of Dream to understanding Shakespeare’s development as a dramatist:

In … Love’s Labour’s Lost, instead of dramatizing a borrowed plot, he built his slight story around an aristocratic entertainment. In doing so he worked out the holiday sequence of release and clarification which comes into its own in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This more serious play, his first comic masterpiece, has a crucial place in his development. To make a dramatic epithalamium, he expressed with full imaginative resonance the experience of the traditional summer holidays. He thus found his way back to a native festival tradition remarkably similar to that behind Aristophanes at the start of the literary tradition of comedy.

The possibility that Shakespeare alluded to Aristophanes’ Birds in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (AMND) has recently been proposed by Marianne Kimura in “Midsummer night’s dream+sun” (2013).  Kimura insightfully noted that Bottom’s bird song in Act III, which awakens Titania from her sleep, is remarkably similar in context and content to the song of Epops, the Hoopoe in Aristophanes’ comedy.  In AMND, after Peter Quince pronounces “Bless thee, Bottom, bless thee! Thou art translated” and exits, Bottom replies indignantly,

Bottom: I see their knavery. This is to make an ass of me, to fright me, if they could; but I will not stir from this place, do what they can. I will walk up and down here, and I shall sing, that they shall hear I am not afraid.

                                             The woosel cock so black of hue,

                                                            With orange-tawny bill,

                                             The throstle with his note so true,

                                                            The wren with little quill –

   Titania: (Awakening) What angel wakes me from my flow’ry bed?

   Bottom:           The finch, the sparrow, and the lark,

                                        The plain-song cuckoo grey,

                             Whose notes full many a man doth mark,

                                        And dares not answer nay –

              For indeed, who would set his wit to so foolish a bird?

     Who would give a bird the lie, though he cry “cuckoo” never so?    (3.1.117-136)

Titania, responding to Bottom’s song and under the influence of Oberon’s love potion, proclaims to be “much enamoured of thy note” and “enthralled to thy shape”, and calls on her fairies, Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Moth and Mustardseed, to attend on Bottom, to “fetch jewels from the deep” and to sing while he “on pressed flowers doth sleep”.   More, she promises to purge his “mortal grossness” so that he may “like an airy spirit go”.

Comparing this passage to Epops’ song that awakens the nightingale Procne, in Aristophanes’ Birds prompted Kimura to argue for the likelihood that this Greek comedy was a direct and significant source for AMND.  Epops, who was once human but was transformed into a hoopoe, has a song that is longer than Bottom’s, but it also has two parts and results in an awakening that eventually draws in a flock of different birds to form the chorus, and eventually to the founding of  “Nephelococcygia”, aka, “Cuckoonebulopolus” or “Cloudcukooland” in other translations.

Epops: Chase off drowsy sleep, dear companion. Let the sacred hymn gush from thy divine throat in melodious strains; roll forth in soft cadence and refreshing melodies to bewail the fate of Itys, which has been the cause of so many tears to us both.  Your pure notes rise through the thick leaves of the yew-tree right up to the throne of Zeus, where Phoebus listens to you, Phoebus with his golden hair. And his ivory lyre responds to your plaintive accents; he gathers the choir of the gods and from their immortal lips pours forth a sacred chant of blessed voices.

                                                            *             *             *             *             *

 Epopopoi popoi popopopoi popoi, here, here, quick, quick, quick, my comrades in    the air; all you who pillage the fertile lands of the husbandmen, the numberless tribes who gather and devour the barley seeds, the swift dying race that sings so sweetly. And you whose gentle twitter resounds through the fields with little cry of tiotiotiotiotiotiotiotio; and you who hop from the branches of the ivy in the gardens; the mountain birds, who feed on the wild olive-berries or the arbutus, hurry to come at my call, trioto,trioto, totobrix; you also, who snap up the sharp-stinging gnats in the marshy vales, and you who dwell in the fine plain of    Marathon, all damp with dew, and you the francolin with speckled wings; you too, the halcyons, who flit over the swelling waves of the sea, come thither to hear the tidings; let all the tribes of long-necked birds assemble here; know that a clever old man has come to us, bringing an entirely new idea and proposing great reforms. Let all come to the debate here, here, here, here. Torotorotorotorotix, kikkabau, kikkabau, torotorotorolililix.                                                                

Kimura suggests, “The second stanza of Epop’s song, with its invocation of many different kinds of birds, a powerful summons which works immediately (many birds instantly arrive in the Greek comedy), is adapted, yet its power is preserved by Shakespeare (in that Titania awakens).”  I would add that Bottom has already referred to himself in connection with specific birds in Act I when he insists that as a lion he would not “fright the ladies”, but “will aggravate my voice so that I will roar you a gently as any sucking dove; I will roar you and twere any nightingale” (1.2.81-84).   His double reference to the “cuckoo” bird at the end of his song and discourse may now be taken as another sign of Shakespeare’s familiarity with Aristophanes’ play where the cuckoo is given a special role:

 “The cuckoo was king of Egypt and the whole of Phoenicia. When he called out “cuckoo,” all the Phoenicians hurried to the fields to reap their wheat and their barley.”

 One is even tempted to suggest that, if Shakespeare is parodying Aristophanes’, then the “nay” at the end of Bottom’s song should be pronounced like an ass’s neigh sound by the actor. The ass makes a distinctive neigh that carries long distances, giving credence to the saying “Not within an ass’s roar”.

Shakespeare references sixteen different species of birds in AMND, including the dove, nightingale, crow, owl, philomel, raven, ousel (blackbird), throstle (song thrush), wren, finch, sparrow, lark, cuckoo, goose, chough, and screech owl.  “The throstle with his note so true” is also addressed in The Winter’s Tale  and The Merchant of Venice where Portia notes that “If a throstle sing”, her French Lord Le Bon, “falls straight a-capering.” These avian associations may well have allegorical significance and will be revisited in the context of considering other parallels between AMND and Attic Old Comedy.  Of note, there no eagles or other fierce birds mentioned in Aristophanes’ Birds nor in AMND.

Stagman and Kimura are not alone in considering Shakespeare’s comedies to have identifiable Aristophanic elements.

“Once Shakespeare finds his own distinctive style, he is more Aristophanic than       any other great English comic dramatist, despite the fact that the accepted educated models and theories when he started to write were Terrentian and   Plautine. The Old Comedy cast of his work results from his participation in native saturnalian traditions of the popular theatre and popular holidays.”      C.L. Barber, Shakespeare’s Festive Comedy (1959)

 The evidence for Aristophanic influence on Shakespeare embodies many considerations, including the presence of direct allusions, satiric political allegory, mocking parodies of contemporary poets, grotesquerie, puns and bawdy language, burlesquing braggarts, symbolic nomenclature, choric epilogues, and the representation of marriage as the canonical end of comedy.  AMND provides ample evidence of these protean influences on Shakespeare’s creative imagination.


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