My Response to Jan Kott’s Essay ‘From Titania to the Ass’s Head’

A deeper look into what well-known critics have said about Shakespeare’s play ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’; specifically the Freudian connections that Jan Kott connects to the play itself.

I have to admit that Jan Kott’s essay on ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ was not what I expected to read when I went to understand all the popular criticisms made about this classic play. I was almost shocked by the entire thing as not a single one of those ideas ever came across to me while I was reading A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I found it a beautiful and yet silly story about love, friendship, and human nature. It was as I continued to read his argument that I found myself feeling that his interpretation was too dark for such a mystical play. Honestly, the more he analyzed, the more I felt like he was making a mountain out of a molehill.

I felt he leaned too heavily on Freudian ideals and beliefs and made them the crux of his argument, as if Sigmund Freud lived at this time and so William Shakespeare must know such things. Throughout this argument, I honestly felt like Kott was taking many of his preconceived ideas about humanity’s inherent fixation on sex and forcing that narrative on this story. While reading the play for the first time, I was interested in the plot and themes found in the book, at the magical and comedic feel it carried. The sexual deviancy of the character’s was nowhere on that list of attributes. It seemed to me like Kott’s argument focuses on parts of the book that don’t really have any significance in the main plot. Even the ideas of human nature that were on the list were more directed towards anger and hurt.

Kott draws this instant connection between Love and Lust in his essay- as if they were the exact same thing. You can have love without attraction and attraction without love; they are not inseparable and yet Kott’s essay seems to equate them to one another completely. He shows love as something quick; yet we do not know how long Lysander and Hermia have loved one another; or how long Helena has loved Demetrius; or how long Demetrius has loved Helena. Those relationships are the core love of this story, not the quick fits that happen in the story. 

Even more, Kott seems to be completely ignoring the supernatural elements of this story entirely. He makes it seem as if the pansy juice being placed on the lover’s eyes was a natural thing; as if it merely was alcohol and has taken away the four young adults’ inhibitions and allowed their hidden natures to come out. That is not so; these changes of love that happen at night are forced on them and it is through magic that this is caused and through the interference of the supernatural. If it wasn’t for the fairies, these events would not have happened at all logically. And yet, Kott completely separates the magical origin of the love potion from the results it causes and instead ties the results to his ideas about human nature.

He also argues that the characters are plastic- that there is no difference between Lysander and Demetrius and Helena and Hermia. It is clear from the start though to many that Demetrius is in some part a womanizer, having chased after Helena, made her fall for him, and them left her behind to chase Hermia. Lysander, from what we know, sincerely loves Hermia and only has eyes for her until the pansy juice forces that change upon him. Demetrius is also trying to force Hermia to love him through using her father against her and threatening her with death in a kind of ‘my way or the highway’ approach. Lysander is sincere, kind, and logical in his bid to Egeus for Hermia’s hand. This scene alone shows how different the two men are.

As for the women, it is true that on the surface they seem the same, but if you peer just slightly beyond, that idea completely falls apart. Hermia is confident, standing up for herself to her father in defense of the love she has for Lysander. When her father won’t concede, she has the courage to run away with Lysander. While in the forest, she is firm against him too, determined to stick with her beliefs and stay separate from him while sleeping. She speaks her mind, as shown in her conversation with Helena in how she has dealt with Demetrius. Helena, on the other hand, has barely any self-esteem at all. She was rejected and heartbroken by the one she loves and is now desperately trying to win his back. She is completely obsessed with her love for Demetrius to the point that she is willing to throw away her beliefs and friendship with Hermia (and to risk Hermia’s life in this by sending Demetrius after her as he will try to force her back home to decide) in order to win some of Demetrius’ approval. These four characters are complex and interesting, not faceless and nameless creature of sex like Kott makes them out to be.

Another thing about Kott’s argument that I can’t agree with is how dark he makes this story out to be. I find his argument to be incredibly biased and focused on the particular elements of the story that work for him as he ignores the parts of the story that contradict it. This story is first and foremost a comedy; it is meant to be silly and chaotic. We have the beauty of nature and of the fairies and we have the ridiculousness of the pansy juice’s uses and the normal people trying to act out the play within the play. This is a fantastical story of fairies and magic, of love and friendship. That is what this story is at its core; that is what one should be focusing on. Not using random things such as animals mentioned and the illogical use of pansy juice to try to make logical arguments about the sexual depravity of humans when all of this suddenness of love is caused by the fairies- not the humans he is tying it to! There is hilarity to be found in happenstance and accidents- and all of the suddenness of love and magical elements of this story that Kott uses in his arguments are just that, happenstances and accidents.

In reading this argument, I found that Jan Kott’s argument was incredibly biased. He has taken modern ideals and beliefs and superimposed them on a play written in the 1600s as if, from his extrapolations, he has found the true meaning of this play. That is not a sign of good scholarship; you cannot take your own beliefs and views, find a document, and then search that document for evidence that can prove your claim. This is shown by just how focused Kott’s evidence and examples are such as on small mentions of animals. He looks at the four main characters and, instead of analyzing them for depth, he merely sees them as faceless characters, using their apparent ‘similarities’ to push forward his argument of the sexual depravity of humanity. He completely ignores the magical and supernatural elements of this story that pull it away from being just a human-based story into something entirely different. He uses the suddenness of love (caused by the fairies and forced on the humans on accident mostly at first) as the basis for his argument towards how sexual and dark ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ is as if love and lust are completely inseparable emotions. Overall, I found his argument as one that falls apart completely when truly analyzed and compared with the important events of the books, more of an essay pertaining to his own beliefs rather than an essay truly focused on studying A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Works Cited

Shakespeare, William, and Grace Ioppolo. A Midsummer Night’s Dream: An Authoritative Text, Sources, Criticism, Adaptations. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018.