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.
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...
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