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A Midsummer Night's Dream

by William Shakespeare

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Why does Shakespeare use the illusion vs. reality theme in A Midsummer Night's Dream?

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In his comedies, Shakespeare examines another theme, love, and all the various ways that it manifests in the human experience.  In A Midsummer Night's Dream, he uses another thematic proposition, illusion versus reality, to help him investigate the question of himan love and how/why we fall in and out of love.

The main device in this play, concerning love as illusion versus reality, is the love juice provided by Oberon.  His interest is two-fold, to punish Titania by using it to make her believe that she is in love with a "wild thing," and also to assist the broken-hearted Helena in winning the love of Demetrius.  The fickleness and the unexplained origin of a human's "falling in love" are demonstrated onstage through the power that Oberon (and Puck) wields in this regard through the juice of a flower.

Of course, since Midsummer is a Comedy, there are complications and mix-ups that must ensue, so Puck not only causes a "wild thing" (Bottom, as Puck has transformed him into an ass) to fall in love with Titania and Demetrius to fall in love with Helena, he also mistakenly causes Lysander (mistakenly) to fall in love with Helena, creating the great comic "fight scene" in the woods between the four lovers.

Illusion versus reality is also demonstrated through the references made throughout the play that remind the audience that they are participating in the theatrical world "of illusion" -- a world (unlike their everyday world of "reality")of fairies and magic in which whatever the playwright desires can happen and any mix-ups or troubles that the characters find themselves in can be made right in an instant.  Voila, the magic of Theatre!  At the play's end, Puck himself alludes to this contrast between illusion (theatre) and reality (the real world) with his lines:

If we shadows have offended

Think but this, and all is mended--

That you have but slumbered here

While this visions did appear.

And this weak and idle theme,

No more yielding than a dream.

For more on illusion and reality in A Midsummer Night's Dream, please follow the links below.

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In what ways does Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night’s Dream question the relationship between reality and illusion?

The key point at which Shakespeare openly calls into question the relationship between reality and illusion in A Midsummer's Night Dream is in Puck's speech in act 5, scene 1.Here, he gives the audience the choice between whether or not to accept the play as real or a dream. He says:

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 . . .
In other words, if you don't like the play, or it seems too unrealistic to you, simply think of it as a dream. In this utterance, Shakespeare seems to suggest that the decision over what is real and what is illusion lies not objectively "out there" but in the mind of the beholder.
This borderline between illusion and reality is thinnest when it comes to romantic love, the play suggests—and where those borderlines blur we are on the fringes of lunacy. For example, how much illusion (or madness) does it take for Titania to be in love with Bottom, with an ass's head? The "love potion" feeds her the illusion that Bottom is lovable, but isn't that what love does anyway, without a potion?
Love in this play is always on the border between reality and illusion—why does Demetrius, for example, fall out of love with Helena and in love with Hermia? Does Theseus convince himself of the illusion that Hypolita is in love with him? Or has she "really" come to love him?
The play makes comic fodder out of illusory quality of romantic love—but in doing so also calls into question how "real" this deepest of human emotions is.
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In what ways does Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night’s Dream question the relationship between reality and illusion?

In A Midsummer Night's Dream, Shakespeare questions the relationship between reality and illusion by asserting that there really are not many clear distinctions between illusion, or fantasy, and reality. Instead, reality is well governed by fantasy, creating fools of all humankind.

Critic George A. Bonnard points out that, regardless of the play's title, the play certainly consists of both real and fantastical moments, or dreamlike moments; the dreamlike moments can also be regarded as irrational moments. However, the play begins very rationally. We even see Lysander petition Egeus for the right to marry Hermia using the very rational argument that he is just as socially and economically endowed as Demetrius, as we see in his lines, "I am, my lord, as well derived as he, / As well possessed ... My fortunes every way as fairly rank'd" (I.i.101-103). Even though Lysander rationally declares that he is the better match for Hermia, we quickly see him become irrational when enchanted by the magical powers found in the woods. Lysander's sudden irrational choice of Helena over Hermia shows us that neither love nor Lysander are as rationally guided as Lysander would like to think, which further shows us Shakespeare's point that there really is not a clear distinction between the rational and the irrational and that the rational is always guided by the irrational.

Bonnard also refers to the mechanicals to point out Shakespeare's theme that we are easily guided by irrational thought. The mechanicals have conceived of a very ambitious plan to write their own play and perform it before the duke in honor or his wedding day. It is particularly ambitious because they are uneducated laborers who have neither written nor memorized a line in their lives. Philostrate, the man in charge of the wedding celebration describes the mechanicals' ambition best when he describes them to be: 

Hard-handed men that work in Athens here,
Which never labour'd in their minds till now;
And now have toil'd their unbreathed memories
With this same play against your nuptial. (V.i.76-79)

Hence, while their decision may be very real, or realistic to them, it is guided by irrational thought. We further see irrational thought when Bottom suggests he takes on every major role in the play and also when the mechanicals think of very creative and ridiculous methods to solve their set problems, such as the wall and the moon.

Hence, we see that Shakespeare's point is to show that there is not a clear distinction between reality and illusion and that reality is governed by illusion, which creates fools of all mankind.

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