But all the story of the night told over, And all their minds transfigured so together, More witnesseth than fancy’s images, And grows to something of great constancy; But howsoever, strange and admirable.
Hippolyta’s account of the events in the wood has justly received attention as the first intimation of the play’s concluding, if qualified, richness. But critics have been curiously silent about its larger significance. In its position, both as a response to the remarks of Theseus that immediately precede it and as the pivot that unites the action in the wood with the framed theatricals of the final act, it draws together and makes explicit the stress laid elsewhere in the play on concepts well known in a variety of Renaissance philosophical writings. These are concerned largely with forms of understanding that rest not on the intellect, but on visionary moments that are above reason, and are found in philosophical writings of many kinds, both pagan and Christian, revealing the impulse towards unity in syncretic neo-Platonism.
Just before Hippolyta’s remarks, Theseus has discussed the relationship between ‘The lunatic, the lover, and the poet’ (5.1.7), explaining the night’s events by placing them within established thinking about poetry and fantastic invention. As Harold Brooks makes clear, his account refers to Plato, Puttenham and Sidney, before moving on to glance at Lyly and Chaucer. Just as important is the way the ideas are expounded, in a logical structure that exemplifies classical sequential rhetoric in its balanced unfolding of the three related figures. That Theseus himself delivers the lines completes their force in signalling a return to a hieratic, male order of thought: the structure of classical philosophy becomes part of the structure of contemporary society, in which the benevolent Duke both explains and presides over the return of the errant young people to the fold of hierarchical marriage, having arbitrarily dismissed the objections of Egeus in parallel demonstration of his power. Like Lorenzo’s explanation of the Boethian hierarchy at the end of The Merchant of Venice – ‘Sit, Jessica – look....’ – it contains the easy patronage of the aristocratic male towards the tolerated, lesser being defined by gender. But like that speech, the order that it suggests is significantly undermined, even at its outset. As Tony Tanner has pointed out, when Theseus claims ‘I never may believe / These antique fables’ (5.1.2–3) he is saying that he does not believe in himself, as well as adding another layer to the play’s repeated unmasking of the dualism of theatrical and personal identity, most explicit in the mechanicals’ interlude.
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