“The Shakespearean Unscene: Sexual Phantasy in A Midsummer Night’s Drearm”‘ Lorna Hutson, Merton Professor of English Literature, Oxford University
Date: Friday February 24, 2017
Venue: University of Newcastle, Sydney Campus, Room 229, 55 Elizabeth St, Sydney
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 sixteenth 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. It argues that Shakespeare animates the chief topics of proof – Time, Place and Manner – as the mysterious Night, Wood and Moonlight which make sexual crimes (violence, stealth, infidelity) take on the form of likelihood 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.