A Midsummer Night's Dream Analysis

  • 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 bring about both romance and comedy.
  • 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.
  • Shakespeare uses the metafictional play-within-the-play to discuss the nature of drama, performance, and the theatre itself.

Analysis

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A Midsummer Night's Dream is one of Shakespeare's most famous productions. It stands as an early example of meta-fiction (one of the most notable examples), and it is deeply experimental in how it tells its story. Its title is particularly apt, given that layered throughout the play, there is almost a dreamlike sense of unreality, resulting in an extraordinarily fascinating work of dramatic fiction.

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In most Shakespearean dramas, one will usually find a very clear and defined sense of setting. However, in this play, Shakespeare mixes together two very different mythological universes, with the co-existence of pre-classical Greece and the world of the fairies. These are two completely different mythological traditions, but here they have been fused together and brought into conversation with each other.

This is particularly notable considering that Shakespeare in his other plays has shown himself deeply knowledgeable about and faithful to classical history. One can see this in a work such as Julius Caesar, where all of the events and characters are drawn from history, with the play set in a distinctly classical, pre-Christian Rome. With A Midsummer Night's Dream, however, the setting is far more ambiguous: the play professes to be set in Ancient Athens, with its invocation of Theseus and Hippolyta, but as soon as the characters leave Athens, suddenly the classic and mythological setting transforms into a faerie story. What results is a dramatic universe that is largely unmoored in time and place, in a way that his tragedies, such as Othello and Macbeth, or comedies, such as The Merchant of Venice, are not. This ambiguity of place gives the entire play a dreamlike feeling.

Within the action of the play, the drama itself is manufactured and manipulated (though not in the way that Iago manipulates Othello: even as Othello is manipulated, his emotions and jealousy are entirely genuine). In most storytelling, there is a kind of disconnect: fiction is always artificial by its very nature, given that fictional characters are ultimately beholden to the will of their author. But usually, within the context of the story itself, the emotions, conflicts, and storylines are treated as genuine and entirely real within that fictional universe. But in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Shakespeare breaks with this convention, because even within this fictional world he's created, the human characters are still treated as plot devices, pawns to be manipulated and directed across the play by the faeries.

Considering the perspective of meta-fiction, one must address the final scene of this play, in which Puck addresses the audience directly and the fourth wall is torn down entirely. Across this play, Shakespeare manipulates the artifice of drama, and in its ending, he takes that manipulation to its logical endpoint, where reality and unreality merge together. The fictional Puck, a character within the play, addresses the very real people watching it and offers up that perhaps they should consider the whole experience a dream.

Analysis

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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

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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

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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

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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 his own Romeo and Juliet which was written just prior to this play. Remembering that Shakespeare was both an actor and a dramatist may give us some insight into the behavior of actual audiences at the Globe.

This particular play, commonly thought to have been commissioned for the wedding of Elizabeth Carey and Thomas, the Son of Henry, Lord Berkeley, is Shakespeare’s most fully articulated. We have the lovers who are either in love or out of it with no middle ground: Theseus and Hippolyta, Hermia and Lysander, and Helena and Demetrius, the fairy world, Puck as the gateway between the fantasy and real world, Bottom as the human “invited” into the fairy world, and the play within a play. This internal play, ending unhappily for its pair of lovers, serves to show the three happily united or reunited couples in the larger play just how lucky they are. Music was used extensively in the fairy scenes since they are in pentameter couplet and other free forms which are suitable for singing. In keeping with his progressive treatment of female characters (although played by young boys), Shakespeare makes a great deal of the distinction between Helena and Hermia by constantly referring to their opposite physical attributes and temperaments while making very little distinction between their male lovers, Lysander and Demetrius. He is also careful to make apparent the distinction between the court and the craftspeople, except, of course, when Bottom is beloved by Titania.

This play was first printed in The Quarto Edition in 1600, although the printing of plays was not encouraged since the thinking at that time was that no one would bother to actually attend the theater to see a play once they could read it instead. Licenses were granted to both the Globe and The Blackfriars permitting them to “reform” Shakespeare’s plays. Apparently they did because when Samuel Pepys saw the play for the first time, in its reformed version, in 1662, he was appalled by the play but loved the dancing (in the fairy scenes). In 1692, Thomas Betterton produced an operatic adaptation with music by Henry Purcell.

Other musical adaptations in the eighteenth century were Richard Leveridge’s Comic Masque of Pyramus and Thisbe in 1716, J. F. Lampe’s revision of Leveridge’s production in 1745 as Pyramus and Thisbe, and Charles Johnson’s using the play within the play and As You Like It to produce Love in a Forest in 1723. In 1755, new songs were introduced in the production of The Fairies which was abbreviated by George Colman in 1763 to become A Fairy Tale.

In 1816, the acclaimed Convent Garden was the site for Frederick Reynold’s musical version. By the Victorian era, Mendelssohn’s music became the focal point and the original text was cut heavily for Reynold’s production. This practice of musical productions as opposed the play Shakespeare wrote continued well into the twentieth century.

Modern Connections

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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 many people, from Shakespeare's original audiences to modern audiences, can relate to.

The four young lovers in the play—Hermia, Lysander, Helena, and Demetrius—all seem to feel love very deeply, even before the fairies work their magic. For Lysander's love, Hermia is willing to go against her father's wishes (he wants her to marry Demetrius). Both Hermia and Lysander would rather run away and risk the punishment of Athenian law if they are caught. Helena, in love with Demetrius, betrays her friendship with Hermia with the hope of gaining a little of Demetrius's favor. She hopes that in telling Demetrius of Hermia's plan and her whereabouts, he will thank her, and that perhaps this attention will lead to something more. Demetrius has pursued Hermia into the wood and is almost insane from not finding her ("And here am I, and wode [mad] within this wood, / Because I cannot meet with Hermia" [II.i.192-93]).

This love which seems so strong, however, is weak in two ways: for the men, it appears to be fickle; and for the women, it comes between them as lifelong friends. Lysander and Demetrius are both affected by the love potion of Oberon, applied by Puck to their eyelids. Lysander, who so deeply loved Hermia, suddenly loves Helena. Not only is he completely enamored with her, but he now violently despises Hermia. He "repent[s] / The tedious minutes" he has spent with her (II.ii.111-12). Similarly, Demetrius, who had also loved Hermia and so venomously despised Helena ("I am sick when I do look on thee," he told her in II.i.212), suddenly refers to her as "goddess, nymph, perfect, divine" (III.ii.137). The thing that transforms the affections of Lysander and Demetrius in the play is a magical potion; in real life, such seemingly deep emotions are also easily transformed, especially among the young. Like the young lovers in the play, young people in love today are still finding their own identities. Lysander, Demetrius, Helena, and Hermia, in fact, do not really seem to have any identifying characteristics. As young people are still finding out who they are, what appeals to them in a romantic sense is likely to change as they themselves change.

Helena and Hermia, on the other hand, remain constant in the sense that they each love the same person throughout the play. However, they jeopardize their own friendship as they strive to hold on to the young men they love. Helena, as previously mentioned, betrays Hermia when she tells Demetrius of Hermia's planned elopement to Lysander. Later, when Helena becomes convinced that Hermia is in on what she thinks is Lysander's and Demetrius's cruel joke, she accuses Hermia of betraying their friendship. She asks, "O, is all forgot? / All school-days' friendship, childhood innocence?" (III.ii.201-02). Hermia denies that she has scorned her friend, but becomes so increasingly dismayed by Lysander's professed love for Helena, and hatred for her, and by Helena's accusations, that she finally lashes back at Helena saying, "I am not yet so low / But that my nails can reach unto thine eyes" (III.ii.297-98). The bickering ceases when Hermia blames the whole confused mess on Helena, after which Helena runs off. How often is this scene replayed in modern times? Do today's teenagers, and adults, let romantic relationships come between friendships?

There is another example of love in the play: the bewitched love between Titania and the transformed Bottom. Titania falls in love with the ass-headed Bottom. Having fallen in love with and adored this creature, Titania awakens from this love, and from sleep, feeling a little foolish for having been so blinded by love: "O, how mine eyes do loathe his visage now!" (IV.i.77). Again, how many times is this scene replayed in modern times? Do people today fall in love with people who aren't what they seem to be? And don't we feel a little like Titania did when we see what they really are?

The other romantic relationship in the play (aside from that of Pyramus and Thisby, portrayed by Bottom and company) is that of Theseus and Hippolyta. While we don't really get to see the two interact very much during the course of the play, their relationship does not change, perhaps attesting to its stability. Critics have also maintained that the relationship between Theseus and Hippolyta represents love balanced by reason, in contrast to the inconstant, passionate love of the four young people.

Shakespeare presents a variety of views about love in A Midsummer Night's Dream, and it is not clear which conception of love he supports. Perhaps the point is that love is different things to different people and may affect us in any number of ways, depending on where we are in our lives.

Bibliography

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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

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*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, 1959.

Charney, Maurice. All of Shakespeare. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.

Foakes, R. A. ed. The New Cambridge Shakespeare. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

Frye, Northrop. "Characterization in Shakespeare's Comedy," Shakespeare Quarterly: Vol.IV (1953), pp.271-277.

Goddard, Harold C. The Meaning of Shakespeare—Volume 1. Illinois: University of Chicago Press, 1951.

Granville-Barker, Harley. Prefaces to Shakespeare. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1965/1978.

Gurr, Andrew. Playgoing in Shakespeare’s London. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Halliday, F.E. Shakespeare. New York: Thames and Hudson, Inc., 1956.

Levi, Peter. The Life and Times of William Shakespeare. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1988.

Macdonald, Ronald R. Twayne’s English Author Series—William Shakespeare: The Comedies. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1992.

Mowat, Barbara A. & Paul Werstine, ed. The New Folger Library—Shakespeare: A Midsummer Night’s Dream. New York: Washington Square Press, 1993.

Muir, Kenneth. Shakespeare's Comic Sequence. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1979.

Nevo, Ruth. Comic Transformations in Shakespeare. New York: Routledge, Chapman & Hall, 1981.

Palmer, John. Comic Characters of Shakespeare. London: Macmillan, 1946.

Rhoades, Duane. Shakespeare's Defense of Poetry: "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and "The Tempest". Westport, CT: Greenwood Press,1986.

Schoenbaum, S. William Shakespeare: A Compact Documentary Life. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 1977.

Schoenbaum, S. Shakespeare’s Lives. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Tillyard, E.M.W. Shakespeare's Early Comedies. London: Athlone Press,1965.

Wells, Stanley. (Ed.). The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Wilson, J. Dover. Shakespeare's Happy Comedies. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1962.

Young, David. Something of Great Constancy: The Art of "A Midsummer Night's Dream". New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1966.

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