A Midsummer Night's Dream Critical Commentary - Essay

William Shakespeare

Act I Commentary

Scene i: A Midsummer Night's Dream opens with two romantic conflicts. The first part of the scene features two famous characters from Greek mythology: Theseus, the hero who defeats the Minotaur in the labyrinth, and Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons. Theseus, the "duke" or ruler of Athens, has just led his people to a defeat of the Amazons. In four days, Theseus will take Hippolyta as his wife as a spoil of the war, despite the fact that the Amazons, as devotees of the virgin goddess of the moon Diana, swear an oath of chastity. Even though this romantic/marital relationship has a very rocky beginning, Theseus demonstrates his impatience to marry Hippolyta and his intentions of good will. This first section of Scene 1 demonstrates a major theme in the play—love, whether romantic or marital, has its problems. These problems must be overcome in order to maintain a healthy relationship.

The second section of Scene 1 introduces one of the major plot issues of the play. Ordinarily a love triangle like that of Hermia, Lysander, and Demetrius would cause a great deal of trouble just for the sake of love, but this is complicated further by Egeus' staunch insistence that Hermia marry Demetrius despite her love for Lysander. This conflict highlights a key issue in parent-child relationships—the amount of control a parent should have over a child. By Athenian law, Egeus has the right to decide whom his daughter will marry. Egeus is shocked and angered by his daughter's refusal to follow his wishes on the matter because she should, by both ancient Greek and Elizabethan societal standards, be governed by her father. However, Egeus completely disregards Hermia's preferences and Demetrius' reputation, which has been tarnished by the breaking of his oath to Helena. Theseus claims at this point that he cannot change the law, and he tells Hermia to choose between Demetrius, life as a nun, and death. Although Theseus upholds Egeus' right to determine whom his daughter will marry, Theseus is clearly unhappy about the manner in which Egeus and Demetrius have handled the situation when he tells them that he has some "private schooling for them both" (l. 116). The action of the play also creates sympathy for Hermia and Lysander as well.

The third part of the scene gives more information about the relationship between Hermia and Lysander, and introduces another important character, Helena. When Theseus leaves with Egeus, Demetrius, and Hippolyta, Hermia begins to cry over the situation. Lysander then reminds her that "The course of true love never did run smooth," meaning that she should accept the fact that there will be problems for their relationship to overcome (l. 134). Although things definitely look bad for the lovers, Lysander is able to keep his head. His...

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Act II Commentary

Scene i: As with most of Shakespeare's plays, Act II of A Midsummer Night's Dream brings further plot complications, this time in the woods outside of Athens (where Hermia and Lysander and the mechanicals are scheduled to meet). Scene 1 portrays the problems of the fairy world ruled by Titania and Oberon. The first two characters in the scene are Puck (Robin Goodfellow) and one of Titania's fairies (speaking mainly in iambic tetrameter). Through them exposition is given as to the duties of attendant fairies, and, more importantly, the nature of the argument between Oberon and Titania. Oberon and Titania have been fighting since the beginning of midsummer about an Indian boy that Titania has taken into her train. Titania dotes on this child, who is the son of her late high priestess, and puts her love for him and his mother above her relationship with her husband. This is another comment on the nature of marriage in the play in that though there will be obstacles to overcome, married couples cannot favor someone else over their spouse if they hope to have a good relationship. Titania does this, as she explains to Oberon, for love of the priestess, but she will be punished for it. When the two meet in the wood, each accuses the other of having an affair with Theseus and Hippolyta and cannot come to a compromise. As a result, Oberon plots his revenge against Titania and a way to get the Indian boy by instructing Puck to go get the "love-in-idleness" flower, whose juice has the power to make someone fall in love with any living creature. The idea of this potion demonstrates another aspect of the love theme of the play—true love is not necessarily all-powerful. The love juice has the capacity to not only make someone fall in love with someone else, but it also has the power to turn someone away from true love. As with all of the other problems in the play, the juice of the love-in-idleness flower must be overcome if everything is to end happily.

The problems of Helena and Demetrius also become more complex in this scene. Having told Demetrius about the elopement of Hermia and Lysander in an attempt to gain favor with him, Helena enters the scene chasing Demetrius, who clearly does not appreciate her more for the information. In fact, Demetrius insults Helena several times because she insists on following him. Helena's betrayal of her childhood friend and her refusal to think before acting cause her more pain as well as danger in this scene, because it is dangerous for women to wander in the woods unprotected. However, Oberon, who has been secretly watching the confrontation, orders Puck to find the "Athenian" in order to turn his...

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Act III Commentary

Scene i: Just when things seem to be at their most serious, the comedy returns. Close to Titania's sleeping place, the mechanicals assemble to rehearse their play. They are still concerned about the lion, and Bottom brings up an additional worry that the ladies will not be able to cope with the fact that Pyramus kills himself with his own sword. The solution, given by Bottom, is to write prologues explaining the situation. This theatrical convention, which Shakespeare himself utilizes upon occasion (including the epilogue at the end of this play), is made fun of through the mechanicals, who feel the need to explain everything through prologues instead of trusting to the intelligence of their audience.

While the mechanicals bumble through their first rehearsal, Puck comes into the scene and decides to become an "actor" himself. When Bottom goes off stage, Puck transforms Bottom's head into that of an ass. Although the rest of the mechanicals panic and run away, Puck has merely given Bottom a head that is a reflection of his character. Being the "ass" that he is, Bottom does not realize his transformation until after his own head has been restored. Shakespeare provides Bottom with plenty of references to asses in order to make the situation funnier.

Bottom's plight is not the end of the comedy in this scene, however. Under the influence of the love juice, Titania wakes when Bottom sings and instantly falls in love with him. Bottom's response to Titania's declaration of love reflects the main theme of the play: "And yet, to say the truth, reason and/love keep little company together nowadays. The more/the pity that some honest neighbors will not make them/friends" (ll. 130-133). Reason and love keep very little company in this play, which is the cause of all of the problems. Although Bottom is able to utter this perceptive comment, his foolishness keeps him from understanding anything else that goes on around him.


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Act IV Commentary

Scene i: Most of the resolutions of the play occur in this scene. In the first part of the scene, Oberon reveals to Puck that Titania, consumed with her love for Bottom, has given Oberon the Indian boy. Thus Titania's doting, now focused on Bottom, has lost her the one thing she has been fighting for since the beginning of the play. As a result, Oberon lifts the spell and takes Titania away from Bottom. Although Oberon has enough "mercy" to lift the spell, his anger has not quite abated. When Titania says that she has had a dream about being in love with an ass, Oberon is cruel enough to point out Bottom to her, clearly showing that it was no dream. However, Oberon tells Puck to make sure that the Athenian lovers see the...

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Act V Commentary

Scene i: The beginning of the last scene gives one more glance at Theseus and Hippolyta. When Hippolyta notes that the events the lovers have told them are "strange," Theseus questions the validity of the story despite the fact that all four lovers have told them exact same story. This short exchange demonstrates once again that these two do not see things in a similar way, which will make their marriage difficult. Theseus' refusal to listen to Hippolyta's opinions appears again when he orders that the mechanicals bring forth their play, despite the Philostrate's warning that it is "nothing" and Hippolyta's distaste for "wretchedness." Determined to have his own will, Theseus orders the play, which, as the audience as come to expect, unfolds disastrously. The mechanicals miss lines, talk to the audience directly, and have far too many prologues for one short scene. Most of the audience members (especially Hippolyta) take the opportunity to insult the mechanicals at every turn. By the end, even Theseus is forced to concede the silliness of the play. Once the mortals have gone to sleep, the fairies come to the palace in order to bless the marriage beds. This is a compromise on the part of Oberon and Titania, as they bless the bed of their former paramours. Puck also appears with a broom (traditionally associated with Robin Goodfellow) in order to clean up after the actors. After having made fun of the conventions of the prologue and epilogue through the mechanicals, Shakespeare gives Puck an epilogue to deliver to the audience written in iambic tetrameter couplets. Puck advises the audience that if they do not like the play, they should think of it as nothing more than a dream. This recalls one last time the issue of reality and dreams in the play. The suggestion that the audience should accept the play as unreal if they did not enjoy it correlates with the characters' acceptance of the unpleasant events of Midsummer's night as nothing more than a dream. However, if the audience does enjoy the play, then they should "Give [Puck} your hands, if we be friends," or applaud (l. 426). The advice here seems to be that unpleasant things should be remembered as only a dream, and good things remembered as reality.