At a Glance
- 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.
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.
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.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream marks the maturation of William Shakespeare ’s comic form beyond situation and young romantic love. One plot...
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