Illustration of a donkey-headed musician in between two white trees

A Midsummer Night's Dream

by William Shakespeare

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Teaching Approaches

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The Difficulties of Love as a Theme: A Midsummer Night’s Dream explores the many ways romantic love can go awry. The play uses the plot device of the magic flower to examine the fickle nature of romantic love and the jealousy it can engender. Many of the main characters face obstacles that they must overcome if their affections are to be returned: Oberon and Titania are in an intense argument, Hermia and Lysander are forbidden from being together, and Helena is in love with a man who doesn’t love her. Ultimately, true love wins out over magical intervention.

  • For discussion: What does the play consider the qualities of true love? Of false love? Do all the characters agree on these definitions?
  • For discussion: How does romantic jealousy move the plot of the play forward? 
  • For discussion: Despite the trials the lovers go through, the play ends with them happily paired off. What does this ending suggest about love and courtship? 

The Difficulties of Relationships as a Theme: Several platonic relationships between the main characters explore the ways in which people try—and fail—to communicate with one another. Egeus and Hermia’s father-daughter relationship is at odds at the beginning of the play: He is unhappy that she refuses to obey him, and she is unhappy that he won’t respect her love for Lysander. Hermia and Helena’s longtime friendship is threatened twice: first when Helena betrays Hermia’s plans to run away with Lysander, and again when Helena believes Hermia has convinced Lysander and Demetrius to mock her.

  • For discussion: Is Egeus angry with Hermia because she refuses to marry Demetrius? Or is he angry because Hermia disobeys him, transgressing Athenian customs? How can you tell? How does this affect your understanding of his character? How might different actors interpret his anger differently?
  • For discussion: What does the confrontation scene between Helena and Hermia reveal about the relationship between the two women? How could this scene be interpreted as a play on—and possible challenge to—the trope of two women fighting over a man?
  • For discussion: If magic weren’t involved, do you think Egeus and Hermia would have reconciled? What about Hermia and Helena?

The Play Within a Play: The mechanicals’ intentions for their play are earnest, but their shoddy performance turns tragedy into a comedy. In this way, their play mirrors the lovers’ plotline of Midsummer: What starts off as a love story that seems doomed to end in tragedy ends in happiness and good humor. Analyzing the mechanicals’ play throws certain aspects of Midsummer into relief.

  • For discussion: What is the purpose of having the mechanicals practice and perform their own play within the play of Midsummer itself? How does this play interact with the main narrative? (How) Does it impact your overall understanding of Midsummer?
  • For discussion: The play performed by the actors is a tragic story, though it ends up being humorous because they perform it so poorly. What is the significance of a tragic play being contained within a comedy where all the couples get happy endings? Which themes of Midsummer are highlighted by this contrast?

The Play as a Dream: Once in the forest, characters cycle between sleeping and waking, which is how the flower’s magic is able to work on them. After true love is restored, all of the lovers believe they have just woken from a strange dream. At the end of the play, Puck addresses the audience directly and suggests that the entire play is a dream that the audience will wake from: “If we shadows have offended, / Think but this, and all is mended, / That you have but slumber’d here / While these visions did appear.” 

  • For discussion: How does Puck’s suggestion that the audience has dreamed the play change your interpretation of it? To what extent do his final lines hold truth? Why might Shakespeare have labeled the play a dream in its title?
  • For discussion: Why does it matter that the characters believe that all that has transpired is a dream? How might they react differently if they believed it actually happened?
  • For discussion: In modern theater, Puck addressing the audience directly is an example of a dramatic convention known as “breaking the fourth wall,” which shows the actors to be aware of the audience and thus acknowledges the play’s fictionality. In Shakespeare’s time, however, actors frequently addressed their lines directly to audiences as opposed to other actors onstage. How might that aspect of a performance affect an audience’s experience of the play? Would characters addressing you directly make the play feel more or less like a dream? Why?

Tricky Issues to Address While Teaching

Allusions to Greek and Roman Mythology May be Unfamiliar: Greco-Roman mythology surged in popularity during the Renaissance. However, modern students may be unfamiliar with the myths referenced in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. While Midsummer can be read without  prior knowledge of its mythological context, familiarity with mythology can enhance the study of the play and give students an opportunity to better understand how Shakespeare adapted existing stories to fit his own purposes.

  • What to do: If possible, introduce students to basic tenets of Greek and Roman mythology, focusing on the stories that play a role in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (like the story of Dido and Aeneas or the character of Theseus). Present this as supplemental information during classroom discussion, read the classical stories to students, or assign them along with the play.

Shakespeare’s Language Is Unfamiliar: Although Shakespeare composed his works in modern English, much of his diction is dated to the point of difficulty for contemporary readers. Your students will likely need to learn some of Shakespeare’s language before achieving a full comprehension of the text.

  • What to do: Encourage students to keep a record of difficult vocabulary as they read the play. As a class, define and discuss this diction.

Some Characters Are Considered the Property of Others: Two of the characters in A Midsummer Night’s Dream are treated as property by other characters. One is Hermia, whose father, Egeus, forcefully tries to dictate her decisions and threatens to kill her should she disobey. The other is the changeling; Titania and Oberon refer to him as the “Indian boy” and believe they have a right to possess him as though he were an object. These two examples reflect the values and institutions of Shakespeare’s time. Hermia’s situation reflects the diminished rights women faced in Elizabethan England. The “Indian boy” reflects the specter of colonialism and slavery; it is no coincidence that Shakespeare penned Midsummer at the dawn of the British Empire.

  • What to do: Discuss the cultural forces at play in the context of Midsummer. Encourage students to consider the ways in which demeaning social and political institutions allow for humans to be objectified. Analyze the language of the play—with a focus on scenes featuring Hermia and the changeling—to determine the degree to which the attempted ownership of people is condoned.

Alternative Approaches to Teaching A Midsummer Night’s Dream

While the main ideas, characters, themes, and discussion questions above are typically the focal points of units involving teaching A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the following suggestions represent alternative readings that may enrich your students’ experience with and understanding of the play.

Focus on class differences. The play contains three distinct narratives featuring characters from different economic standings: working class (Bottom and the rest of the actors), upper class (the pairs of Athenian lovers), and royalty (Theseus and Hippolyta as well as Oberon and Titania). The play’s nature as a comedy means that all the characters, regardless of class, are made fun of at some point, though their class differences are also made clear.

  • For discussion: Is there any connection between economic class and which characters are mocked the most? Is there a connection between a character’s class and the forms the mockery directed at them takes?
  • For discussion: How is class used to highlight differences between characters? How are the characters similar regardless of their economic and social standing?
  • For discussion: Do characters’ motivations differ depending on their class? If so, how?

Focus on magic and its consequences. Magic, in the form of the love-in-idleness flower, is the catalyst for most of the play’s plot. If not for magic, much of the trouble between the lovers wouldn’t have occurred; however, magic is also responsible for their eventual reconciliation. 

  • For discussion: Consider how the play portrays magic. Is it a source of trouble, something that shouldn’t be meddled with? Is it a force for good? Or both? Neither?
  • For discussion: How do the fairies in Midsummer relate to English folklore, which depicts fairies as playful tricksters who often involve unsuspecting humans in their games? If you were one of the humans in the play, would you view the fairies as friends, foes, or something else?

Focus on Midsummer as a play. Like all of Shakespeare’s plays, A Midsummer Night’s Dream was written to be experienced through performance. All of its exposition is delivered through dialogue, and the inclusion of song and dance speaks to the desire to entertain an audience rather than merely driving a plot. Moreover, the mechanicals’ play and the textual conceit of the “dream” draw specific attention to the function of performance as it relates to the text.

  • For discussion: Are certain elements of Shakespeare’s dialogue—the meter or the repetition, for example—more evocative when read aloud? Why or why not? What function might these devices serve for an actor? For an audience?
  • For discussion: Does reading scenes aloud change your understanding or interpretation of the text? What possibilities for interpretation become apparent when the text is read aloud?
  • For discussion: Modern productions of Shakespeare’s plays frequently cut lines or adapt scenes to explore new possibilities for the text as a whole. What changes might you impose on the text if you were producing it for the stage? Why?

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