As I read the first two acts of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I could not help but think of it as a bit of a satire of another work published around the same time: Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. Shakespeare’s work contrasts with Spenser’s on nearly every level, creating a series of humorous, parallel opposites. Whereas The Faerie Queene is a serious epic poem, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a lighthearted comedy. The Faerie Queene harshly denounces Catholicism; A Midsummer Night’s Dream embraces a variety of religions, ranging from classical mythology, to the worship of faeries (2.1.123), to Christianity—Catholic Christianity, no less (as we see expressed in Quince’s allusion to the Virgin Mary in 1.2.9).
In addition to these variations, Shakespeare’s “fairy queen,” Titania, is a much different character than Spenser’s is. Spenser’s faerie queen, Gloriana, colors but never actually appears in the poem, and remains a remote, dignified character. Titania, by contrast, plays an active role in Shakespeare’s play, and exhibits such strong characteristics as courage and determination. Titania also differs from Gloriana in that she is married—to the fairy king, Oberon—while Gloriana is proclaimed as a virgin queen, like unto Queen Elizabeth. However, while Spenser holds virginity, chastity, and the Queen herself in high regard in his work, Shakespeare turns them all on their head in laughing mockery in his. Virginity is despised as the less desirable state, women who remain so described as “…withering on the virgin thorn” (1.1.77), and in Oberon’s allusive nod to Queen Elizabeth, she is portrayed, to paraphrase 2.1.155-164, as “a fair vestal” Cupid’s arrow never hit—jestingly suggesting that she could not, rather than would not, pick the “superior state”.
Perhaps the greatest disparity between these two works, however, is the difference in their intents and the ways they reach their audiences. The Faerie Queene is a poem intended to model and instruct readers in morally right behaviors, and its very mode of expression draws its audience one by one, as individuals, to learn the lessons of its tales. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, however, though it is considered great literature now, was originally intended as a piece of entertainment, and being written as a play, its audience would necessarily be people in groups. However, while The Faerie Queene is a beautiful poem and one of my favorite works, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is deeper morally than it might appear, and operates on our minds and consciences perhaps more effectively via one of the devices that Shakespeare is most famous for: ambiguity. Rather than giving us one position outright, Shakespeare uses the persona and voice of many characters to present us with a well-rounded picture. The open doors he leaves beckon us to further discussion of the issues, both with ourselves and with others, thus making the fundamental difference between The Faerie Queene and A Midsummer Night’s Dream that the one entertains as it moralizes, and the other moralizes as it entertains.