Explain the Midsummer Night Dream?
Once you have read through the play, identify its main theme. Because most of Shakespeare’s comedies explore the nature of love, usually leading to marriage, it is no surprise to us to find love and marriage a central topic here. But what is Shakespeare saying about love and marriage? Well if we look at the character list, we can see FOUR separate groups of characters—which means we could have as many as FOUR different explorations of the main theme. Let’s look at each group separately, and talk about how love and marriage applies to them.
In the opening lines of the play we meet the first group, the royal couple, Duke Theseus of Athens and Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, about to celebrate their wedding. While they both are slightly impatient for their wedding night, as mature adults, they can wait.
Next, we soon meet the second group, two pairs of youthful lovers, who like Theseus and Hippolyta, yearn to be married. Their love story is not as simple as Theseus and Hippolyta’s, for there is a problem: Hermia’s father, Egeus, wants her to marry a young man she cares nothing for (Demetrius). Appealing to the Athenian law, Egeus hopes to force Hermia to do as he wants. Here we have the first complication to the simple love and marriage theme: true love vs. authority—in this case, a parent’s authority.
Shakespeare will spend much of the play exploring how the young people can overcome the obstacles to their love. These obstacles come not only from outside, as in Egeus’ objections, but also from within themselves, as in the rivalry between Lysander and Demetrius. See if you can notice other obstacles they must overcome.
In the next scene, we meet the third group, lower-class workmen preparing a play to present at the Duke’s wedding feast. Their play, Pyramus and Thisbe, tells the sad story of two young lovers whose parents forbid their relationship.
Finally, we meet the fourth group of characters, the Fairies, whose King and Queen, Oberon and Titania, are angry with one another. Because the Fairies have close connections to Nature—as a matter of fact, we’re not sure whether Titania’s attendants are fairies or animated insects and flowers—the state of the Royal marriage has important consequences. When the Fairy Royalty are in harmony, Nature is in harmony; when they fight, Nature is out of sorts: the corns rots, fields are flooded, and mankind starves.
Thus for the sake of the natural world, Titania and Oberon must resolve their differences.
Who do you think is most at fault here, Titania or Oberon? Why do you think so?
Notice that Shakespeare sets up all the "love" conflicts in Act I, in Athens, and that most of the action of the rest of the play takes place in the forest outside of Athens. The forest, as the domain of the Fairies, offers a different world—an otherworld—for the working out of the problems we noted above. So Shakespeare sets up an opposition between Athens and the forest: one ruled by Theseus, the other by the Fairies. Theseus rules by facts, law and the logic of calm persuasion; Oberon uses magic potions to bend reality so it seems like a dream. Add to this list as many characteristics of the two places as you can.
Once the characters all gather in the same forest, Shakespeare has plenty of opportunities for overlapping his plots. For example, when Oberon works out the "taming" of his wife, he generously decides to help poor Helena with Demetrius using the same means: a magic love-potion made from a special flower and squeezed on the eyes of someone sleeping. Playing on that old saying, "love at first sight," Oberon’s potion causes his unsuspecting victims to "dote" on whoever (or whatever) they see when at first they awake.
Notice also how, while Oberon smoothes over the dispute with his wife by having her fall in love with an ass (Bottom transfigured), he and Puck make the young lovers’ situation even worse before it gets better. As a matter of fact, their relationships undergo all possible combinations:
- Initially, Hermia is loved by both men.
- Then, her true love Lysander deserts her for Helena (making two mismatches)
- Then, both men love Helena; both sets fight as rivals
- Finally, Demetrius loves Helena (again), and Lysander loves Hermia (again).
- Why does Shakespeare have all four of them go through this incredible mix up?
Each of the changes occurs after waking up from sleep, as if in a dream, making them to seem somewhat unreal. If you took away the magic potion as the cause, in what ways are these "dream" changes in their relationships "realistic"? What might Shakespeare be saying, then, about youthful love?
Since all the love obstacles are overcome by the end of Act IV, the play really doesn’t need to go any further—the plot is complete. Yet Shakespeare adds another scene in the time between the triple wedding ceremony and their going off to consummate the marriages. In this final scene, Theseus shows us yet another version of the marriage theme: the "marriage" between a ruler and his subjects—that is, the ruler’s courtesy in relating to his subjects. Just how "courteous" is Theseus to the workmen?
As we said earlier, the Pyramus and Thisbe story is a love story with parental obstacles that ends tragically with the death of one of the lovers. Why does Shakespeare have us hear this story now, after all the young people’s love problems have been worked out?
One of the few characters to interact with every other "group" is Bottom the Weaver. He seems a rather vain person, but overall he is very likeable. Confidant in his ability to respond to ANY situation, no matter how remarkable, he seems equally at ease among his brother workmen, with the Fairy Queen Titania, and even at the Duke’s court in the final scene. When Puck magically transforms Bottom’s head to the likeness of an ass, does he change the "inner" Bottom? Is Puck’s choice of an ass a good one?
The workmen’s presentation, a "play-within-the-play," also allows Shakespeare to make fun of outmoded styles of acting and trite plays of his time: bad actors reading bad poetry. Even worse, the workmen, afraid that their dramatic effects will be mistaken for real, use explanatory prologues to destroy any sense of illusion. And fearing their audience cannot use their imagination, they have players impersonate moonlight and the wall. Thus their "play-within-the-play" is unwittingly an anti-play, breaking down the barriers between appearance and reality, and perhaps calling into question the very nature of drama.
After the workmen’s presentation and dance, it seems the play is over…but not yet. Shakespeare has a third ending, when the Fairies come to the feast. What do the fairies do? Does their final action add anything to the marriage theme?
Now that you have thought about some of these tough questions, you are ready to READ THROUGH THE PLAY AGAIN to test your observations.
In any case, I hope I have helped arouse your curiosity and your interest in understanding one of Shakespeare’s most famous comedies about the power of the imagination—where "airy nothings"—whether dreams or dramas—can really change lives.