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A Midsummer Night's Dream

by William Shakespeare

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A Midsummer Night's Dream Themes

The main themes in A Midsummer Night's Dream are love, imagination, and patriarchy.

  • Love: Shakespeare portrays romantic love as a blind, irrational, often beautiful force that can be both cruel and forgiving. Ultimately, love drives the play's entire plot.
  • Imagination: The boundaries between the real world and the magical world are porous, and poetry gives the characters a means through which to access their imaginations.

  • Patriarchy: Gender roles exclude the female characters from positions of agency and power, and their purpose in life amounts to finding whatever happiness a good marriage can offer.

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In A Midsummer Night's Dream romantic love is a salient, but ultimately subordinate theme. That love, and specifically romantic love leading to marriage, is a subject of the play that cannot be denied. This is a work that ends with the weddings of three couples (the four Athenian youths along with the city's rulers, Theseus and his bride Hippolyta) and the reconciliation of fairyland's married monarchs, Oberon and Titania. As for Shakespeare's ideas about romantic love in this work, they embody much of what has been said about the topic over the ages. Love, according to Helena, is blind, irrational, and oft-times cruel.

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 wing'd Cupid painted blind.

By the "mind" Helena plainly does not mean reason, but instead, something akin to imaginative fantasy. Love is symbolized by the myriad flowers that arise throughout the play's text, fleeting and ephemeral, and it is most closely akin to the changing, bewitching moon. It is the "moon" or the "watery" moon of the summer Solstice that dominates the figurative language of the play. In the very first scene, we encounter Theseus counting the days to the wedding according to the replacement of the old moon by a new one, and we hear Egeus accusing Lysander "Thou hast by moonlight at her window sung" (30). Love is frequently equated in this play with madness and with being under the influence of the moon. Yet, at the same time, while Love is mad, it is not necessarily bad. In the reconciliation between Oberon and Titania and the mature relationship between Theseus and Hippolyta, Shakespeare provides positive, stable examples of love and marriage.

Love, of course, triumphs in A Midsummer Night's Dream. As a standard element of the comedy genre, the stock blocking character of the irate father, here Egeus, objects to his daughter's choice of Lysander as her marriage partner and is, at first, supported by existing law (here that of Athens and its ruler, Theseus). Although Shakespeare uses this standard plot device, there is never any real tension along these lines, for the tandem sets of lovers are essentially protected from the long arm of paternal authority by the magic of the fairyland woods and its immortal denizens. After Puck's mistakes are undone, the objections of Egeus fall by the wayside as Theseus is able to bend law and custom after all. This is a play that has no genuine narrative core but is concerned, instead, by the ribbons tied round the package. The plot is overwhelmed by the beauty of Shakespeare's magical lyricism. For example, in Act II, scene i, Oberon speaks of his wife Titania's sylvan sleeping quarters:

I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine.

A Midsummer Night's Dream is replete with such multisensory word pictures, bouquets of language flooding the audience and often taking the form of extended, sometimes overly-protracted, lists.

A Midsummer Night's Dream is a fantastic work in which the most active characters (the Athenian couples) fall asleep not once but twice. That being so, we might expect dreams and dreaming to loom large in this work; and, in fact, they do. The most noteworthy individual dream in the play belongs to Bottom, who awakens from his romance with Titania restored to his natural form and tells us:

I have had a dream, past the wit of man to
say what dream it was. Man is but an ass,
if he go about to expound this dream.
The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of
man hath not seen; man's hand is not able
to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his
heart to report, what my dream was.

But more than just a dream-world, the realm that Shakespeare creates in A Midsummer Night's Dream is the world of imagination. The inhabitants of the fairy woods invite us to follow them on a path of endless fantasy. When Puck asks one of Titania's fairies where (s)he has been, the gentle spirit replies:

Over hill, over dale,
Through bush, through brier,
Over park, over pale,
Through flood, through fire,
I do wander everywhere,
Swifter than the moon's sphere.

The fairies of Shakespeare's comedy are found among those elements of nature that spark the human imagination, especially fire and, again, the moon. Consider further what Puck says while reveling in his sport with Bottom and the rude mechanicals:

I'll follow you; I'll lead you about a round,
Through bog, through bush, through brake, through brier;
Sometime a horse I'll be, sometime a hound,
A hog, a headless bear, sometime a fire;
And neigh, and bark, and grunt, and roar, and burn,
Like horse, hound, hog, bear, fire, at every turn.

Here again, sparks of imagination come to mind, Puck's ability to transform himself into any number of things through the aid of the beholder's susceptible mind working as the human imagination does. The final word on the imagination, however, belongs to Theseus, who remarks about the confusion that has transpired in the woods to his queen Hippolyta at the start of Act V:

More strange than true. I never may believe
These antic fables, nor these fairy toys.
Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.
The lunatic, the lover, and the poet
Are of imagination all compact.

Lovers, madman, and creative artists share the same force, the inspiration of imagination and its ability to reach into what cool reason cannot grasp.

It is by no means a coincidence that Theseus mentions "poets" in the passage cited immediately above. This is, after all, a play that concludes with an original work of written art, the "Tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe" as amended and performed by Bottom, Peter Quince, Snug, and their fellows. In their hands, the story of Pyramus's love for Thisbe and its tragic ending is transmuted into a farce. In the first scene of Act III, Bottom comes up with a way to avoid scaring the audience with the sight of the hero's death, saying to Quince:

Write me a prologue, and let the prologue seem to say
we will do no harm with our swords, and that Pyramus
is not killed indeed; and for the more better assurance,
tell them that I Pyramus am not Pyramus, but Bottom
the weaver. This will put them out of fear.

Incredibly, Quince does just that. The presentation of this absurdly amateurish but sincere piece in Act V of A Midsummer Night's Dream allows the real characters, especially Theseus and Hippolyta, to issue comic but lenient critical comments upon the production, with Theseus saying of actors on stage and at large, "The best in this kind are but shadows; and the worst are no worse, if imagination amend them" (V.i.211-212).

The play concludes as the rulers of fairyland bless the human marriages of the play, and Puck then speaks an epilogue that begins:

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

On one level a plea for patronly tolerance toward the light nature of A Midsummer Night's Dream and, on another, a reinforcement of the "dream/imagination" nexus at the work's bottom, the epilogue brings together the gossamer strands into a coherent whole. The play is about the power of creative imagination and its function of bringing the blessings of Nature (writ large) upon mankind and marriage.

Advanced Themes

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Focusing on such issues as love, dreams, and reality, A Midsummer Night's Dream has been regarded by critics as Shakespeare's first mature comedy, a work which addresses fundamental questions about life. Since love triumphs at the end of the play, dispelling the chaotic magic of the night, the drama seems almost conventional. Thus a traditional reading of the play tends to emphasize the joyful outcome, regarding the supernatural elements as the natural background for a story which celebrates life. However, a rather different interpretation was suggested in 1961 by the eminent Polish scholar Jan Kott, who in his seminal Szekice o Szekspirze (Shakespeare, Our Contemporary) drew attention to the sinister undercurrents of this seemingly charming and gentle love story. Unlike earlier critics who only touched upon the dark side of A Midsummer Night's Dream, Kott dismisses the romantic view of Shakespeare's work, maintaining that the play essentially focuses on brutal eroticism and explores a range of violent sexual fantasies. Furthermore, Kott argues, love is debased by the interchangeability of objects of desire, reaching its lowest ebb in Titania's erotic attraction to a beast.

Kott's reading of the play points to the battle of the sexes as a major topic. As feminist critics have observed, the tensions among the antagonists—such as Hermia and her father—do not stem from a blind urge to inflict pain, but reflect the efforts of a male-dominated society to safeguard its laws and values. Not only are the women in the play debased in love and treated as objects of desire and/or possession, but female bonds—such as the friendship between Hermia and Helena—are undermined by male suspicion, insecurity, and fear of possible exclusion from a world ruled by women such as Hip-polyta, the queen of a tribe of women warriors, who was defeated by Theseus and claimed as the spoils of war. Some critics maintain that this male anxiety reflects a dread of sexual powerlessness. As a result, the male characters feel secure only when they are able to divide and conquer their women.

But the ambiguities of love, critics contend, do not exhaust the vast universe of Shakespeare's comedy: A Midsummer Night's Dream also attempts to grasp the elusive nature of reality. The boundaries between the real world, represented by the Athenians, and the supernatural world of Oberon and Titania are sometimes fluid, as evidenced by the many instances when a protagonist, such as Bottom, seems caught somewhere between the two levels of existence. According to some critics, Shakespeare, while describing both reality and fantasy as relative, identifies poetry as the lasting, imperishable result of the perilous journey through the fantastic worlds of apparitions, dreams, and nightmares. Based on this understanding of the function of poetry in the drama, some critics contend that it is the playwright himself who directly imparts a sense of wonder to his audience, thus rendering the universe of his play meaningful and inspiring. In fact, Hippolyta acknowledges the audience's aesthetic experience by declaring,

But all the story of the night told over,
And all their minds transfigur'd so together,
More witnesseth than fancy's images,
And grows to something of great constancy;
But, howsoever, strange and admirable.

Another remarkable feature closely associated to the theme of reality versus illusion in A Midsummer Night's Dream is the work's self-consciousness. In other words, the characters not only discuss the nature of drama but also comment indirectly on the play in which they perform. As critics explain, Shakespeare accomplishes this by employing a well-known theatrical device: the play-within-the-play. The performance of "Pyramus and Thisby" can be interpreted as a triple parody: of itself, of A Midsummer Night's Dream, and of theater as an aesthetic experience.

The magic wand which conjures up Shakespeare's world is, as critics generally agree, peerless poetic language. Finding the right type of language, metrical framework, allusion, and figure to fit every character and situation, Shakespeare enriches his play with memorable examples of literary virtuosity. For example, a character's psychological changes are illustrated by variations in tone or meter. In addition, there are many moments when the characters' eloquence soars high above the confines of dramatic discourse to the realm of pure poetry. The verbal brilliance of the play was particularly emphasized by Peter Brook's seminal 1970 Royal Shakespeare Company production, which focused on the text and drastically reduced the visual dimension by staging the dramatic action in a set resembling a white box.

Rich, allusive, melodious, and multi-layered, Shakespeare's dramatic poetry not only fully employs all of the resources of the English language but also conjures up the power of mythology. Within the complex mythological background of A Midsummer Night's Dream, one finds interwoven strands of pre-Classical, Classical, Celtic, Anglo-Saxon, and Germanic folklore, particularly in the poet's descriptions of the fairy world. Some of the supernatural figures Shakespeare introduces in the drama represent formidable archetypes which appear in different traditions under various names and form. Such a figure, according to scholars, is Diana, the triple goddess, who performs her celestial role as a moon divinity, lives on earth as the virginal Diana—the hunting deity (called Titania once by Ovid)—and haunts the underworld as the witch-goddess Hecate. The moon, one of the goddess's domains, operates as a potent poetic symbol suggesting possible pathways connecting higher realms and our own world, which the Elizabethans called "sublunar" or "under the moon." In the last act, Theseus mentions "the lunatic, the lover and the poet" (V.i.7), using the "moon-word" "lunatic" to underline the connections between madness, love, and poetry. Critics who suggest an entirely different genealogy of Shakespeare's fairy-world, however, argue that the Elizabethan fairies of A Midsummer Night's Dream are not characters from folklore, but figures from literary and religious tradition. Tracing the origins of Shakespeare's supernatural world in Arthurian legend and in the Christianized form of Cabala, a Jewish system of reading the Scriptures based on the mystical interpretation of words, these commentators identify the moon goddess as the Virgin Queen, or Elizabeth I. As a result, Shakespeare's references to the lunar divinity could be understood as an homage to the existing cult of Queen Elizabeth.

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Act and Scene Summaries