- Series: Folger Shakespeare Library
- Mass Market Paperback: 256 pages
- Publisher: Simon & Schuster; unknown edition (January 1, 2004)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0743477545
- ISBN-13: 978-0743477543
- Product Dimensions: 4.2 x 0.7 x 6.8 inches
- Shipping Weight: 5 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 9,185 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #6,570 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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A Midsummer Night's Dream (Folger Shakespeare Library) Mass Market Paperback – January 1, 2004
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About the Author
William Shakespeare was born in April 1564 in the town of Stratford-upon-Avon, on England’s Avon River. When he was eighteen, he married Anne Hathaway. The couple had three children—an older daughter Susanna and twins, Judith and Hamnet. Hamnet, Shakespeare’s only son, died in childhood. The bulk of Shakespeare’s working life was spent in the theater world of London, where he established himself professionally by the early 1590s. He enjoyed success not only as a playwright and poet, but also as an actor and shareholder in an acting company. Although some think that sometime between 1610 and 1613 Shakespeare retired from the theater and returned home to Stratford, where he died in 1616, others believe that he may have continued to work in London until close to his death.
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The good Duke of Vienna, Vincentio, is concerned with the morals of his city. He enacts a number of reforms, then takes a sabbatical, and tells his deputy governor, Angelo, to see that the reforms are enforced. But Angelo goes too far: he enforces the law to the letter and shows no mercy for violators. Claudio is a victim of Angelo's strict enforcement policy. He's betrothed to Juliet, who is pregnant with his child. Because they are not yet married, he's arrested for fornication and sentenced to death by decapitation. Enter Isabella, Claudio's sister and the play's heroine. She's a young novice preparing to become a nun on the very day of his execution, and makes an appeal to Angelo for leniency. Her plea is reminiscent of Portia's words to Shylock in "The Merchant of Venice." "Merciful heaven, / Thou rather with thy sharp and sulfurous bolt / Splits the unwedgeable and gnarled oak / Than the soft myrtle; but man, proud man, / Dressed in a little brief authority, / Most ignorant of what he's most assured / His glassy essence, like an angry ape / Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven / As makes the angels weep." As with Shylock, Angelo is unmoved. Rather, he offers to release Claudio in exchange for sex. Isabella refuses, even though it means her brother's death. "Better it were a brother died at once, than that a sister, by redeeming him, should die forever."
The good Duke, meanwhile, has not taken a sabbatical after all, but has been masquerading as a friar. But for what purpose? To determine if Angelo will do the right thing? Shakespeare doesn't say. He advises Isabella to trick Angelo by agreeing to meet with him and then sending another woman in her place. Enter Mariana. She was once betrothed to Angelo, until Angelo learned her dowry was lost at sea, at which point he called off the engagement. Mariana agrees to assume Isabella's identity and sleep with Angelo to secure Claudio's release. The bed trick goes as planned, but Angelo reneges on his promise and orders the immediate execution of Claudio. The Duke intervenes and Claudio is spared, but neither Angelo nor Isabella know this; they think Claudio is dead. The Duke then informs the deputy that he is returning home.
Angelo and court officials greet the Duke at the city gates. Isabella and Mariana are also there, and call upon the Duke to redress their wrongs. Instead, the Duke has Isabella arrested and orders Angelo to marry Mariana. Once they are married, he sentences Angelo to death for the murder of Claudio. At this point, Shakespeare takes some liberties that many think makes for an implausible and unsatisfactory ending. In his succinct and compelling book, "Shakespeare and Forgiveness," Professor William H. Matchett makes sense of the play's incongruities, as we shall see in a moment.
Isabella is released. Upon hearing of Angelo's death sentence, she goes before the Duke to plea for mercy. But instead of telling Isabella her brother is alive, the Duke proposes marriage. Nothing has prepared the audience for this. Matchett suggests: "The point is that Isabella must consider Claudio dead if Shakespeare is not to lose his big scene: her true saintliness is only shown in her forgiving Angelo despite her thinking he has killed Claudio. The Duke must remain an almost inhuman manipulator to keep her in this position. And so he does."
Isabella (kneeling): "Most bounteous sir, / Look, if it please you, on this man condemned, / As if my brother lived. I partly think / A due sincerity governed his deeds, / Till he did look on me. Since this is so, / Let him not die. My brother had but justice, / In that he did the thing for which he died. / For Angelo, / His act did not overtake his bad intent, / And must be buried but as an intent / That perished by the way. Thoughts are not subjects, / Intents but merely thoughts." The Duke pardons Angelo, and once again proposes marriage. Isabella answers with silence. Comments Matchett: "Shakespeare has staged a most dramatic forgiveness scene at the climax of his play, but at the cost of establishing Isabella's moral integrity by damaging the Duke's. It throws the whole mutuality of their marriage into doubt."
He adds: "Perhaps we should accept the created image without worrying about the Duke's character. . . . One has to admit, however, that the Duke's proposal--`I have a motion much imports your good'--is about as arrogantly self-centered as they come, while the silence with which Isabella meets it, Shakespeare having provided her with no response, has allowed many modern productions to substitute denial for consent. This no doubt violates the assumption of Shakespeare's play, but it allows recognition of the discomfort created by the forgiveness scene." The play ends with Isabella learning her brother is alive and well, but the question of her marrying the Duke is a matter of interpretation. However, in the final analysis, the full measure of forgiveness outweighs Angelo's measure of misdeeds, and trumps the play's defects.