A Midsummer Night’s Dream marks the maturation of William Shakespeare’s comic form beyond situation and young romantic love. One plot focuses on finding young love and on overcoming obstacles to that love. Shakespeare adds to the richness of comic structure by interweaving the love plot with a cast of rustic guildsmen, who are out of their element as they strive to entertain the ruler with a classic play of their own. The play also features a substructure of fairy forces, whose unseen antics influence the world of humans. With this invisible substructure of dream and chaos, A Midsummer Night’s Dream not only explores the capriciousness and changeability of love (as the young men switch their affections from woman to woman in the blinking of an eye) but also introduces the question of the psychology of the subconscious.
Tradition held that on midsummer night, people would dream of the person they would marry. As the lovers enter the chaotic world of the forest, they are allowed, with hilarious results, to experience harmlessly the options of their subconscious desires. By focusing in the last act on the play presented by the rustic guildsmen, Shakespeare links the imaginative world of art with the capacity for change and growth within humanity. This capacity is most laughingly realized in the play by the transformation of the enthusiastic actor, Bottom, into half-man, half-ass, an alteration that continues to delight audiences.
The play was originally performed at a marriage ceremony, and the plot is framed by the four-day suspension of ordinary life in Athens in expectation of the nuptial celebration of Theseus and his queen, Hippolyta. Both characters invoke the moon as they anticipate their union. The lunar spirit of nebulousness, changeability, and lunacy dominates much of the play’s action.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is remarkable for its blending of diverse personages into an eventually unified whole. In addition to Theseus and Hippolyta, the cast includes three other categories of society, each distinguished by its own mode of discourse. Theseus and Hippolyta speak high blank verse, filled with leisurely confidence and classical allusion. The four young and mixed-up lovers—Hermia and Lysander, Helena and Demetrius—can also muster blank verse but are typified by rhyming iambic lines that indicate the unoriginal speech of those who woo. The rustic guildsmen are characterized by their prose speech, full of halts and stops, confusions, and malapropisms. The fairies for the most part speak a light rhymed tetrameter, filled with references to nature. Oberon and Titania, as king and queen of the fairies, speak a regal verse similar to that of Theseus and Hippolyta. The roles of the two kings and the two queens are often played by the same actors, since the characters are not on stage at the same time.
In the background of all the love matches is a hint of violence or separation. Theseus conquers Hippolyta. Oberon and Titania feud over a changeling boy. Pyramus and Thisbe, the lovers in the rustics’ play, are kept apart by a wall. Demetrius stops loving Helena for no apparent reason and switches his affections to Hermia, who dotes on Lysander. The father of Hermia, supported by Theseus and Athenian law, would keep his daughter from marrying the man of her choosing and instead doom her to death or life in a nunnery.
When Puck addresses the audience in the play’s epilogue, he points to a major theme of the badly acted play-within-a-play: Art requires an act of imaginative engagement on the part of those who experience it. Art can reveal alternatives, horrible or wonderful turns that life may take. Art’s power to transform is only as effective as the audience’s capacity to distinguish illusion from reality and to bring the possible into being.