British Academy Shakespeare Lecture: 'The Shakespearean Unscene'

Activity: Talk or presentation typesPublic lecture/debate/seminar


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.

British Academy Shakespeare lecture, open to the public, Sam Wanamaker Theatre, London.
Period12 May 2016
Held atThe British Academy


  • Shakespeare, Midsummer Night's Dream, sexuality, the unseen, forensic rhetoric, rape, representation of women