In what ways does Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night’s Dream  question the relationship between reality and illusion?

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Tamara K. H. eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In A Midsummer Night's Dream, Shakespeare questions the relationship between reality and illusion by asserting that there really are not many clear distinctions between illusion, or fantasy, and reality. Instead, reality is well governed by fantasy, creating fools of all humankind.

Critic George A. Bonnard points out that, regardless of the play's title, the play certainly consists of both real and fantastical moments, or dreamlike moments; the dreamlike moments can also be regarded as irrational moments. However, the play begins very rationally. We even see Lysander petition Egeus for the right to marry Hermia using the very rational argument that he is just as socially and economically endowed as Demetrius, as we see in his lines, "I am, my lord, as well derived as he, / As well possessed ... My fortunes every way as fairly rank'd" (I.i.101-103). Even though Lysander rationally declares that he is the better match for Hermia, we quickly see him become irrational when enchanted by the magical powers found in the woods. Lysander's sudden irrational choice of Helena over Hermia shows us that neither love nor Lysander are as rationally guided as Lysander would like to think, which further shows us Shakespeare's point that there really is not a clear distinction between the rational and the irrational and that the rational is always guided by the irrational.

Bonnard also refers to the mechanicals to point out Shakespeare's theme that we are easily guided by irrational thought. The mechanicals have conceived of a very ambitious plan to write their own play and perform it before the duke in honor or his wedding day. It is particularly ambitious because they are uneducated laborers who have neither written nor memorized a line in their lives. Philostrate, the man in charge of the wedding celebration describes the mechanicals' ambition best when he describes them to be: 

Hard-handed men that work in Athens here,
Which never labour'd in their minds till now;
And now have toil'd their unbreathed memories
With this same play against your nuptial. (V.i.76-79)

Hence, while their decision may be very real, or realistic to them, it is guided by irrational thought. We further see irrational thought when Bottom suggests he takes on every major role in the play and also when the mechanicals think of very creative and ridiculous methods to solve their set problems, such as the wall and the moon.

Hence, we see that Shakespeare's point is to show that there is not a clear distinction between reality and illusion and that reality is governed by illusion, which creates fools of all mankind.

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A Midsummer Night's Dream

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