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A Midsummer Night's Dream

by William Shakespeare

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How does Shakespeare create a sense of magic in A Midsummer Night's Dream?

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One of the clear ways in which Shakespeare creates a sense of magic in this masterful comedy is through the inclusion of fairies. Fairies in Elizabethan times were thought of to be bad spirits who played tricks on people and were responsibile for disease, illness and misfortune. We see this attitude mirrored in the character of Puck and his delight in relating the various tricks he has played to Titania's fairy in Act II Scene 1. However, Shakespeare was responsible for creating the idea of the fairies we think of today - small, elfy-type creatures with gossamer wings, modelled in the fairies of Titania who wait upon Bottom. Magic was definitely something that was believed in during Elizabethan times, when 'rational' explanations were not always available in the same way as today due to scientific advances.

Midsummer Night is the longest day of the year, and traditionally a time associated with madness, love and doing things out of the ordinary (due to the sunstroke from all the sun humans were exposed to). This makes the title particularly fitting to the central theme of the play: that of love. From what we know, Shakespeare wrote this play to be performed at a wedding of nobility, and the play examines the theme of love through looking at a number of different character couplings and with the final 'resolution' or happy ending of marriage. The setting of the wood of course being away from civilisation and the city makes it the perfect place for the magical events that cause the Athenian lovers to fall in and out of love with one another.

Thus the inclusion of fairies and then the magic of the setting in the woods serves to create a magical atmosphere that rightly makes this play seem so fantastical.

 

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Why does Shakespeare use the device of magic in A Midsummer Night's Dream?

To answer this question we need to think of the ways in which magic is used as a dramatic device to support the main theme of the play. Magic is principally used in the flower that Oberon uses to make various characters fall in and out of love with each other. It is this that he uses to make Titania fall in love with Bottom (who has been helpfully given the head of an ass by Puck) and also it is this same flower that is used to sow such confusion amongst the Athenian lovers. However, if we look at Helena's famous speech in Act I scene 2, we can see how these magical acts support the theme of the way that love as a force overrules our reason and senses and makes us fools:

Things base and vile, holding no quantity,
Love can transpose to form and dignity.
Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind,
And therefore is winged Cupid painted blind.

Of course, the perfect example of this is in the way that Titania falls in love with Bottom. He is certainly "base and vile" with his new head, but the magic of love makes him appear with "dignity" in her eyes. In the same way, Shakespeare uses magic to poke gentle fun at the protestations of the Athenian lovers in Act I before they enter the woods: magic is a force that reveals us to be the fickle, changeable individuals that love shows us to be.

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How does Shakespeare use magic in Act III of A Midsummer Night’s Dream?

In Acts II and III of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, William Shakespeare shows Oberon, the king of the Fairies, and his assistant Puck using magic to cast spells on lovers. No magic is featured in Act I. In the first discussion of magic, in Act II, Scene 1, Oberon expresses his request that Puck go and pick a flower that has the magical property of making a person fall in love. When Puck brings him the flower, Oberon uses it on Titania. In Act II, Scene 2, as he squeezes the flower’s essence into her eyes, he says,

What thou seest when thou dost wake,

Do it for thy true-love take;

Love and languish for his sake.

Oberon also uses his magical ability to become invisible. Oberon is motivated by both jealousy and a mischievous spirit to enchant his wife, Titania, and the young Athenian lovers who are lost in the forest. A misunderstanding about the intended target’s identity leads Puck to uses the flower on the wrong person. In Act III, Scene I, Puck magically gives Bottom, one of the Rude Mechanicals, the head of an ass. This transformation occurs offstage. When Bottom re-enters transformed, he is the first person Titania sees upon waking, so she falls in love with him, saying:

So is mine eye enthralled to thy shape;

And thy fair virtue's force perforce doth move me,

On the first view to say, to swear, I love thee.

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How does magic bring out a mystical atmosphere in A Midsummer Night's Dream?

The play is set at summer solstice: a date that marks the transition of spring to summer. It was believed in Shakespeare's time that the shifts of the seasons were magically potent times when the veil between the worlds (the human world and the underworld) became thinner: hence the humans and fairies can interact more closely at this time. This is a pagan theme that lends a sense of pastoral whimsy to the story. Magic is equated with love, and the fairies use magic to play with the emotions of the human lovers.

The presence of the fairies, while they can be capricious and mean-spirited at times, lends a sense of mystery and ethereality to the play. The humans are often at a loss to explain their actions because they have been the targets of magic: as when Bottom is turned into an ass, or the four lovers' loyalties are challenged when fairy dust is sprinkled on their eyes. When Titania, herself a magical creature, is also affected by the magical fairy dust put in place by Robin Goodfellow, the sense of magic and mysticism is intensified all the more, as it is suggested that even a supernatural being can be affected by the magic of love and lust.

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