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A Midsummer Night's Dream

by William Shakespeare

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Is Shakespeare's play A Midsummer Night's Dream entirely a dream?

Quick answer:

No, A Midsummer Night's Dream is not a dream. Aside from Puck's lines at the end of the play, there is little to suggest the events of the play are only a dream.

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One of the important themes found in A Midsummer Night's Dream is reality vs. illusion. Shakespeare wants to show us that there is a very thin line dividing reality from illusion and that, actually, our realities are greatly influenced by our fantasies or illusions. If Shakespeare had not included at least some aspect in the play to represent reality, he could not have shown us the connections between reality and illusion. Hence, I would actually argue that the entire play is not one entire, long dream, but rather contains both realistic aspects and dreamlike aspects.

Theseus and his court particularly represent reality. In the opening scene, when Hermia is brought before Duke Theseus by her father, we are in the presence of reality. In fact, Theseus not only represents reality, but also reason and rationality. We especially see him being reasonable and rational with respect to his treatment of Hermia. When Egeus petitions Theseus for permission to enact the "ancient privilege of Athens," which allows for a father to either kill or send a disobedient daughter to a convent, interestingly, Egeus only asks for permission to kill Hermia if she continues to refuse to marry Demetrius (I.i.42). However, Theseus, remaining just and rational, keeps the option of sending her to a convent open, as we see in his reply to her question of what could happen to her and advises her to think her decision over carefully:

Either to die the death, or to adjure
For ever the society of men.
Therefore, fair Hermia, question your desires. (I.i.67-69)

We further see Theseus acting with respect to reason when later in the play he grants Hermia permission to marry Lysander and Demetrius to marry Helena.

Hence, we see that because Theseus and his court represent reality and rationalism, the whole play of A Midsummer Night's Dream is not just one long dream, but rather a mix of both reality and illusion.

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Is A Midsummer Night's Dream a dream?

At the end of A Midsummer Night's Dream, Puck addresses the audience, giving particular advice should they have been upset by the play:

If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended—
That you have but slumbered here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend.

The assertion that the events depicted in the play were only a dream has led some to believe that the happenings in the woods were only a fantasy shared by the characters. However, it might be problematic to take what Puck says at face value.

Firstly, when Puck is suggesting the events were a dream to the audience, he is not insisting. In fact, his tone is rather sly and sarcastic, with a metafictional flourish: he says if the audience disliked the play, then they can just pretend they dreamed the whole thing up, thus taking the blame off of the actors and writer. This is not meant to be a claim that the characters in the play were dreaming, but rather that the audience in the real world was.

Also note that the characters within the woods who interpret what happened there as a dream, such as Bottom, are presented as not thinking clearly or as being duped by the fairies. Bottom's monologue after he is transformed back into a full human being is comical not only because of its language but because Bottom cannot comprehend the weird things that have happened to him as anything but a fantasy.

Furthermore, after deciding to set matters right between the four quarreling lovers during act 3, scene 2, Oberon tells Puck that the Athenians will view what happened as no more than a dream due to the magic involved:

When they next wake, all this derision
Shall seem a dream and fruitless vision,
And back to Athens shall the lovers wend,
With league whose date till death shall never end.

Notice how Oberon describes dreams as "fruitless," that is, without merit. Other characters also often use the term "dream" to suggest something insubstantial. Dreams are dismissed as fluffy fantasy or outright nonsense. However, the happenings in the enchanted woods are hardly insubstantial to the characters tangled up in them. The four lovers sort out their love square due to the interference of the fairies. Titania and Oberon's marriage is repaired as well. This all suggests that the events the audience have witnessed are more than a mere delusion because the characters have been transformed by them.

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