A Midsummer Night’s Dream transports us to a fantastical world where fairies reign supreme and humans are merely a source of fun to be trifled with from time to time. While it is a love story—it is believed that Shakespeare wrote the play for a wedding—romance is sometimes eclipsed by the ethereal and magical world of fairies and the spirit of farcical comedy woven into the fabric of the play. When the play opens, the humans’ world is out of balance. Four young Athenians (Lysander, Hermia, Demetrius, and Helena) are enduring romantic problems. Both men love Hermia, but she loves only Lysander, of whom her father disapproves.
Discord exists also in the world of the fairies, whose king and queen have been fighting. A third group of characters, a band of six craftsmen, is planning a play for the upcoming wedding. Almost all the characters—humans and fairies alike—end up in the woods after nightfall, where the king of the fairies sets in motion a series of events that wreaks havoc on his wife and the lovers over the course of the night. By morning, however, he has restored harmony to one and all; he and his wife have made up, and the four lovers are happily paired off. After they have married, alongside Theseus and Hippolyta, the humans gather at Theseus’s palace to watch the craftsmen’s disastrously hilarious play. A world that was woefully out of balance at the play’s outset has been brought back into alignment.
This was an early comedy of Shakespeare’s, written in 1594 after he joined Lord Chamberlain’s Men and just as they were on the cusp of becoming the most popular theatrical troupe in London. The powerful female figures of Hippolyta and the fairy queen Titania evoke in some form Queen Elizabeth herself, who may have seen the play. As with most comedies, order is restored in the end, through three marriages and their promise of happiness and fertility, but over the course of the play, authority is challenged, the nature of love is revealed, and comic anarchy is unloosed. Even though authority prevails, the play is nevertheless a magnificent celebration of poetry, of love, and of youth.
One of the intriguing elements of this play is that the romantic plot is in some ways secondary to the play’s ethereal setting. Although the play shines a spotlight on the nature of love—and the irrational quality of young love in particular—it focuses equally on the relationship between reality and dreams and on a beautiful, magical world that exists beyond the concrete, orderly confines of reality. Perception and misperception, the suspension of disbelief, and the questioning of what is real and what is a dream are all addressed here, with varying degrees of seriousness.
The play is a lush, playful lark, richly woven with vivid imagery and some of Shakespeare’s most lyrical language. Students will easily grasp the simple plot structure and be able to focus on how language can contribute to creating a certain mood and developing a character. Some of Shakespeare’s most beloved characters feature in this play; the mischievous and nimble Puck and the nonsensical donkey-faced Bottom are two of the most memorable characters in literature. Students are likely to relate to the spirit of youthful rebellion inspired by the Athenian royals and will enjoy thinking about the madness of young love in contrast to the sober reality of mature love. Finally, students should enjoy debating whether love is akin to madness, where the line exists between reality and dreams, and whether we humans are indeed at the mercy of forces beyond our control.
By the end of the unit the student will be able to:
1. Identify the primary themes in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
2. Describe Shakespeare’s many motifs and their significance, particularly the meaning of nature and sight.
3. Determine what makes A Midsummer Night’s Dream such a timeless and popular work.
4. Explain the play’s messages about love.
5. Describe the role of magic in the play and its significance.
6. Describe the fantastical world of the fairies and explain how Shakespeare went about creating it.
7. Describe how Shakespeare’s use of language distinguishes among the Athenian royalty, the Athenian craftsmen, and the fairies.