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The Shakespearean unscene: Sexual phantasies in A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream

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Full text posted to Journal of the British Academy, volume 4, pp. 169-195.

Abstract: Post-Freudian and post-Foucauldian readings of A Midsummer Night’s Dream assume that the play celebrates the freeing-up of female sexual desire from neurotic inhibitions or disciplinary norms. But this is incompatible with what we know historically about 16th-century society’s investment in female chastity. This paper addresses the problem of this incompatibility by turning to Shakespeare’s use of forensic or legal rhetoric. In the Roman forensic rhetoric underlying 16th-century poetics, probable arguments of guilt or innocence are ‘invented’ from topics of circumstance, such as the Time, Place or Manner of the deed. The mysterious Night, Wood and Moonlight of Shakespeare’s play can be seen as making sexual crimes (violence, stealth, infidelity) take on the form of probability and fairy agency. The play thus brilliantly represents the stories of Theseus’s notorious rapes, abandonments and perjuries as fearful ‘phantasies’ or imaginings experienced by Hermia and Helena. This explains how the Victorians could interpret the play as a chaste, childlike ballet, while moderns and postmoderns take it to be a play about psychological repressions working against the free play of sexual desire.

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