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Elements of Bakhtin’s Carnivalesque in Midsummer Nights Dream final

William Shakespeare’s romantic comedy ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ is commonly dated


between 1594 and 1596. It depicts the events surrounding the marriage of the athenian duke,
Theseus, to the amazonian queen Hyppolyta, especially the misadventures of the four athenian
lovers and the rude mechanicals in the forest, as they are manipulated by its inhabitants, the
fairies. The very title of the play alludes to midsummer eve or summer solstice, characterised by
ceremonial processions, which is, as David Wiles states, “traditionally a time of revelry, Magic
and transition.” He claims that the play was written for the wedding of Elizabeth Carey, a patron
of Shakespeare’s company of actors.

The term carnivalesque comes from the nineteenth century russian critic Mikhail bakhtins
study of Francois Rabelais’ writings. It's a literary mode that subverts the expectations of the
dominant style and liberates the atmosphere through humor and chaos. Bakhtin traces the
origins of the carnivalesque to the concept of carnival, which is related to the Feast of
Fools(catholic revelry preceding the Lent).

According to David Wiles, the theory of the carnival can actually be traced back to the classical
era and he divides it into two schools of thought- the utopian theory of the carnival,
propounded by Plato, Macrobius and Mikhail Bakhtin, and another, where the carnival is seen as
a means of catharsis, propounded by Aristotle, and many Cristian thinkers. Plato’s theory
maintains that “carnival restores humans to an earlier state of being when humans were closer
to the divine, and... Associates carnival with communal order.” Thus Plato doesn't see carnival
as anarchic. On the other hand, Aristotle in his safely valve theory talks about the cathartic
effect of festival music, which allows people to adjust to the status quo.

Bakhtin outlines 4 characteristics of the carnivalesque:

1. The free and familiar interactions between people of different social strata and the inversion
of hierarchies, as well as the suspension of normative order, as the world turns upside down.
This is extremely evident in the scenes set in the woods, where the confusion and disorder
caused by Oberon’s commands and Puck’s mischief results in the chaotic chase involving the
four lovers, as both Demetrius and Lysander, under the influence of the magical juice, reject
their love for Hermia and start to pursue Helena. Even Titania’s brief infatuation with Bottom
can be seen as an instance where status quo is ignored in favour of familiarity in interactions, or,
as Wiles puts it, “a temporary liaison between people of divergent status” as she tries to woo
Bottom with gifts and goes around ‘Seeking sweet favours for this hateful fool’ (4.1.48) “

2. The acceptance of Eccentric or otherwise inappropriate behaviour in the carnival, without


any consequences, and it acts as a space for suppressed voices to express their opinions.
A The most overt example of this is the manner in which Hermia and Helena are forced to
pursue the men in the forest, ignoring traditional norms of courtship. In (2.1.240–2), Helena
complains:
Your wrongs do set a scandal on my sex.
We cannot fight for love, as men may do;
We should be woo’d, and were not made to woo.
B The double lives of medieval people become evident, as their proper, contained behavior at
court, dictated by rigid hierarchies, is extremely different from the unrestrained revelry that
they indulge in within the liminal space of the forest. For instance, the women watch the play in
absolute silence in Act 5, and yet they act freely without fear of admonishment in the forest as
the behavioral mores of everyday life are ignored.
3. The coming together of binaries like Heaven and Hell, the young and the old, etc. Aside from
the Carnivalistic misalliances, the Carnival is also characterised by the false coronation and
deposition of the fool.

A The conflation of dualities is evident throughout the play due to the dream like quality of the
play, which causes fantasy to mingle with reality on multiple levels.
In A5 S1, Puck offers the possibility of treating the series of events as a dream:
“If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber'd here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream”.
The play within the play highlights that there is no difference between a spectator and
performer, as everyone lives within the carnival, that is an extension of an upside down world.
B A central ritualistic act of the carnival, the false coronation of the slave or clown as the
carnival king acts as the commencement of the inverted carnival world, followed by a shameful
deposition. This symbolizes change and renewal, death and rebirth. An example of this is
Bottom’s comical elevation to the position of titania’s consort, as the clownish figure is
pampered, and treated with immense respect in Act 4 sc 1. The deposition occurs in the form of
the reversal of Titania’s enchantment, and she recoils from the sight of Bottom, whom she was
previously proclaiming her love for.

4 Bakhtin believed that carnival permitted the occurrence of sacrilegious events without the
need for punishment. This profaning of the sacred can be associated with his idea of ‘grotesque
realism’, wherein something noble, spiritual or honourable is undermined in a manner that
makes it appear revolting. Grotesque realism embraces the primal and sensual urges or needs
of men and celebrates human existence. Both the carnivalesque, and grotesque realism entail
the suspension of ordinary mores of acceptable behaviour, notions of who has power and the
social constraints placed on individuals, and have a cathartic impact. Wiles finds grotesque
realism in the image of Bottom, with the head of an ass, lying “in the arms of a queen”, (and in
the context of a wedding performance, it “would be a means of preparing the bride and groom
for the intimidating and embarrassing rite of passage that social custom required of them.”)

Thus for Bakhtin, the carnivaleque is always a dualistic, upside down world, where ideas and
truths are constantly challenged, norms are subverted, the relativity of things is proclaimed by
alternative voices and the authoritative voice of the hegemony is de- privileged through the
mingling of high culture with the profane.

Wiles severely critiques Bakhtin for his tendency to homogenise the different kinds of carnivals,
as he finds links to the three different festivals of St Valentines Day, May Day as well as the
Midsummer solstice in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’. He also argues against Bakhtin’s belief
that only the commoners participated in carnivals, by proving how the nobles supported the
festivals, admittedly for the sake of their own agendas.