In Act 3 of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the author plays a variety of games with the themes of illusion and reality, including the following:
- In the opening discussions among the mechanicals about the play they intend to stage, illusion and reality are very much on their minds. They are afraid that their play will seem so realistic that it may actually frighten the audience:
Bottom. There are things in this comedy of Pyramus and
Thisby that will never please. First, Pyramus must
draw a sword to kill himself; which the ladies
cannot abide. How answer you that?
Ultimately Bottom solves these problems by announcing that he will write a prologue to explain that no harm and no real killings result from the sword. Thus, an illusion that might seem too realistic is carefully explained to be an illusion in a play which is itself an illusion.
- Later, when Puck places an ass’s head on Bottom and Bottom re-emerges wearing that head, his comrades are terrified:
Bottom. If I were fair, Thisby, I were only thine.
Quince. O monstrous! O strange! we are haunted. Pray, masters! fly, masters! Help!
[Exeunt QUINCE, SNUG, FLUTE, SNOUT, and STARVELING]
In this case, Shakespeare plays another game with illusion and reality: Puck, himself an illusion, seems to use an illusion (the ass’s head) to disguise “reality” (Bottom’s “real” appearance). The illusion looks so “real,” however, that the other mechanicals fly from it, and the illusion (the ass’s head) is in some ways realistic because Bottom really is, in some senses, an ass.
- When Bottom appears wearing an ass’s head, his friends are really afraid of him because they think he has really been changed into an ass. He, however, thinks that they are merely playing a trick on him, pretending to see what must be merely an illusion, and thus using an illusion of their own to deceive him about reality:
Bottom. I see their knavery: this is to make an ass of me;
to fright me, if they could. But I will not stir
from this place, do what they can: I will walk up
and down here, and I will sing, that they shall hear
I am not afraid.
These are just a few examples, from the very beginning of the act, that show Shakespeare already playing a number of games with illusion and reality in this section of the play.