A Midsummer Night's Dream Analysis

  • Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream is a comedy of errors, a narrative form that relies on slapstick and chaos for its humor. Magic potions, enchanted lovers, and a mischievous fairy named Puck combine to create a play as funny as it is romantic.
  • A Midsummer Night's Dream is divided into four primary plots: the four lovers fleeing into the woods, the impending marriage of Theseus and Hippolyta, the fight between Oberon and Titania, and the performance of the play within the play, Pyramus and Thisby. In the end, the four plots intersect when Oberon lifts the spell and the various couples are married.
  • Shakespeare uses the play within the play to discuss the nature of drama, performance, and the theatre itself. This metafictional plotline helps the reader better understand the mechanics of the play as a whole. 

Analysis

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.

Form and Content

William Shakespeare’s comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream includes four interwoven plots: the two sets of lovers who flee into the woods, the upcoming nuptials of Theseus and Hippolyta, the battle of the sexes between Oberon and Titania, and the play rehearsals and performance by the “rude mechanicals.” The four plots merge in the last two acts as the four lovers pair off (Hermia and Lysander, Helena and Demetrius) and join the newlyweds Theseus and Hippolyta in the viewing of the tragedy Pyramus and Thisby. Shakespeare’s comedy concludes with the joining of these three couples, as well as with the reconciliation of the fourth, Oberon and Titania.

As the play begins, Egeus, upset that his daughter Hermia desires to marry Lysander rather than Demetrius, demands from Theseus that she be killed or sent to a nunnery. Hermia and Lysander, desperate because of the obstinacy of Egeus, flee to the woods in order to escape him. Helena, Hermia’s friend who loves Demetrius, informs him of the plot, hoping that he will forget Egeus’ daughter and love her instead. Demetrius, however, scorns her love and follows the couple into the woods—with Helena in pursuit. As the four lovers sleep, Oberon orders Puck to place love juice in the eyes of Demetrius so that he will love Helena, yet Puck mistakenly puts the potion in the eyes of Lysander. Lysander consequently falls in love with Helena; Puck then attempts to rectify the situation by placing the juice in Demetrius’ eyes. As a result, both men, who have been pursuing Hermia, scorn her and desire Helena, who previously had no suitors. A significant section of the comedy involves the return of the men to their rightful lovers—Lysander to Hermia and Demetrius to Helena.

Meanwhile, the “rude mechanicals” (poor, honest, and well-meaning working-class men), led by Bottom the weaver, decide to put on a play—a tragedy—to celebrate the marriage of Theseus to Hippolyta. As the men rehearse, Oberon and Titania fight because he is jealous that she possesses a changeling boy. Oberon enlists Puck’s help to steal the boy away from her. To humiliate Titania further, Oberon orders Puck to place the love juice in her eyes; she then falls in love with Bottom, whom Puck has transformed into an ass. Satisfied with his triumph, Oberon allows Puck to undo the spell, and the couple reconciles. The rude mechanicals then perform the tragedy in front of Theseus and Hippolyta and the two couples, who have left the woods. Shakespeare’s comedy concludes with all four romantic couples being content.

Places Discussed

Theseus’s palace

Theseus’s palace. Home of Theseus, the “duke of Athens,” in which the play opens, shortly after Theseus has militarily subdued the Amazon queen Hippolyta, whom he plans to marry in the evening. Theseus is an important figure in ancient Greek mythology, but the Athens of William Shakespeare is partly classical and partly medieval, hence Theseus’s title as a “duke.” The Athens of the play mirrors a courtly world with inflexible codes of conduct that become oppressive to the quartet of young lovers.

At the end of the play, all the characters who have appeared in the play reappear at Theseus’s palace for the marriage festivities, on which the Fairies bestow a final blessing. By this point, the palace resembles an Elizabethan great house.

Woods

Woods. Forested region close to the palace that is the setting for most of the play. Woodlands are familiar English locales with their beautiful moonlit glades and common English insects and flowers. However, the woods are also mysterious and alien, with fairies and spirits. Within these woods, confusions about love and imagination crystallize. The play’s woodland fairyland has its own laws of time and space. For example, the king of the Fairies, Oberon, appears in an instant from India, and the mischievous fairy Puck circles the earth in forty minutes. The woods’ rhythms are those of sleeping, dreaming, and awaking. Dangers lurk—not only those of hunting but the bafflements of reason, illusion, random desires, and shifting identities.

Historical Background

In order for the title to have any meaning for the contemporary student of Shakespeare’s play, its origin must be explained. At the time the play was written, only three seasons were observed: autumn, winter, and summer—which included what we now consider spring and began in March. Therefore, the play, whose action takes place on the eve of May Day, actually is in midsummer as Shakespeare knew it. This was the time of year when animals were traditionally let out to pasture and the spirits of nature were thought to be abroad. The action takes place in the fairy wood, which may be what the “dream” part of the title refers, although it may refer to another common custom, the divining by midsummer dreams and flowers who one’s lover is or whether one’s lover is faithful, just as the characters in the play do. It was also customary on May Day (May 1st) to greet the day with a sunrise service that includes songs to emphasize hope and cheerfulness.

As was usual for a dramatist of his time, most of Shakespeare’s plays were not original. This is not to say he plagiarized, rather that plays were based on other, earlier works by masters such as the ones Shakespeare studied in grammar school: Ovid, Plautus, Terence, and Chaucer. For Shakespeare, the poetry and the event were much more important than the characters in his plays. There are several theories about this but the preponderant one is that Puck is the imagination’s way of ordering the random. It could be said that Puck (from English rustic folklore) is the gateway between the imaginative elements and reality as we know it. Curiously enough, Bottom is the only human who can see the imaginative (fairy) elements.

The play-within-the-play seems to be Shakespeare’s version of a dramatist and actor’s worst nightmare. Lines are forgotten, cues missed, conversation carried on between the actors and the audience, and the actors’ efforts laughed at. In addition, the audience loudly and freely carries on conversations during the production. It is also a parody of...

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Modern Connections

While there are many things in A Midsummer Night's Dream that modern audiences enjoy about the play, the theme of love is one that...

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Bibliography

(Great Characters in Literature)

Arthos, John. “The Spirit of the Occasion.” In Shakespeare’s Use of Dream and Vision. Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1977. Connects nature with the dream world and its dual potential of horror and bliss. Dreams stem from and inform the psyche, and they share a cognitive function with the world of art.

Brown, John Russell. Shakespeare and His Comedies. New York: Methuen, 1957. Focuses on Theseus’ speech connecting the madman, the lover, and the poet. Reveals how the play negotiates and validates varying responses to the unknown.

Calderwood, James L. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. New York: Twayne, 1992. Drawing on all the different theoretical approaches to literary interpretation, Calderwood organizes the experience of the play around the topics of patriarchal law, desire and voyeurism, marginality and threshold experiences, the power of naming, performativity, and the illusion of conciliation and unity. An excellent summary of the state of reading Shakespeare.

Patterson, Annabel. “Bottom’s Up: Festive Theory.” In Shakespeare and the Popular Voice. New York: Basil Blackwell, 1989. Reads the presentation of the lower class in political terms. Bottom’s malapropisms represent a suppression of voice and class, yet his creative use of language points toward a more synthetic utopian society.

Welsford, Enid. The Court Masque. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1927. Reads A Midsummer Night’s Dream in light of the tradition of the court masque, which was a popular form at the time the play was presented. Focuses on the visual and aesthetic qualities of music and dance to try to interpret the play in its cultural context.

Bibliography and Further Reading

*If available, books are linked to Amazon.com


Barber, Cesar Lombardi . Shakespeare's Festive Comedy: A Study of Dramatic Form and Its Relation to Social Custom. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972.

Berry, Edward. Shakespeare's Comic Rites. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Modern Critical Interpretations: William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. New York: Chelsea House Publishing, 1987.

Bonazza, Blaze O. Shakespeare's Early Comedies: A Structural Analysis*. The Hague: Mouton, 1966.

Briggs, Katharine M. The Anatomy of Puck. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul,...

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