Scholars generally agree that A Midsummer Night's Dream was written to be performed at an aristocratic wedding. Everything in the play is related to the theme of marriage. Theseus and Hippolyta's nuptials are the goal towards which all the action is directed—the fairies have come to Athens to bless the occasion; the artisans' performance is intended for it; Hermia's judgment, and thus the climax of the lovers' story, is scheduled to coincide with it, and finally the young lovers are married along with the ducal couple. The very first line emphasizes the importance of the forthcoming 'nuptial hour' (I.I.I), and the denouement is a blessing of the three weddings in terms that suggest a performance within a dwelling, as Oberon orders the fairies to distribute blessings 'through this house' (5.1. 388).
The play suits such an occasion well, for it has the formality of a Masque, an entertainment often performed at noble weddings. Like many masques, this comedy presents a world of magic and metamorphosis in brilliant spectacles involving picturesque supernatural beings. It also makes much use of music and dance, and its finale is itself masquelike. It is given over to celebration, with further dancing and a comical performance (Pyramus and Thisbe) similar to an anti-masque—the realistic farce that was commonly part of a masque itself. Like a masque again. Acts 1-4 are very symmetrically plotted, moving from the court of Theseus to the woods and back again. In part, this reflects an archetypal plot pattern of withdrawal and return, common in the romance literature preceding Shakespeare and in his own work, but the arrangement here is particularly formal. (Compare, for example, The Two Gentlemen of Verona or Cymbeline.) There are internal symmetries also. For example, two songs are used—one to put Titania to sleep in 2.2, and the other to wake her in 3.1—and Quince and his cast appear four times, twice on either side of Bottom's adventure.
As is natural in such a formal context, the characters are stylized and unrealistic: they do not interact as people normally do. Theseus and Hipplyta are remote ideals of classical calm; Puck is a typical goblin; and Titania and Oberon are distant in their regal immortality, elemental forces of nature with the power to influence the climate and to bless marriages. Only Bottom and his fellow artisans represent ordinary people, and they are plainly character types with little personality beyond their buffoonery.
The lovers, too, are static; although Lysander and Demetrius are transformed by Oberon's magical herb, they are altered only in their stance towards another character, and in Lysander's case the change is only temporary. Demetrius is left in a position he had held before the opening of the play and thus is ultimately unchanged also. Change occurs only in the pattern of the lovers' relationships, which has often been compared to a dance: first the two men address one of the women while the other woman is alone; then one man's affection is changed, and a circular chase unfolds. Lysander woos Helena, who is still pursuing Demetrius, who continues to court Hermia, who still wants Lysander. Next, when Demetrius is put under Oberon's spell, the two men face the other woman, and the first woman is alone. Finally the only stable arrangement is achieved, with Lysander and Demetrius each returned to his original love interest.
Such intricate masquelike plotting is appropriate not only to a festive occasion but also to the world of dreamy confusion that is central to the story. Much of the action, from 2.1 into 4.1, takes place at night; the lovers assert several times that they are looking at the stars (e.g., 3.2.61, 3.2.188), thus drawing attention to the night-time setting (which was usually enacted in afternoon sunlight in an Elizabethan public theatre). The nocturnal universe of shadowy strangeness is further evoked in the play's imagery. The moon is referred to prominently, beginning in the very first few lines (1.1.3,4,9): Moonlight is mentioned three times more often in A Midsummer Night's Dream than in all of Shakespeare's other plays combined. In many different contexts the moon is used in figures of speech: to indicate time of day (1.1.209-210) and of month (1.1. 83); with reference to catastrophic flooding (2.1.103) and to the speed of fairies (2.1.7, 4.1.97); cuckoldry (5.1.232) and in connection with chastity (1.1.73, 2.1. 162) and opposition to chastity (3.1.191-193). 'Moonshine' is even a character in the artisans' play. The eerie quality of moonlight is reinforced by frequent evocations of the beauty of the woods at night.
Flowers are frequently mentioned as well, as in 1.1. 185 and 2.1.110, and of course the magical aphrodisiac is a flower (2.1.166). Even the doggerel of Pyramus and Thisbe provides a floral motif (3.1.88-89). Birds, too, are alluded to throughout the play. Afoot (5.1.380) and in flight (3.2.21), as emblems of sight (2.2.113, 3.2.142) and of sound (1.1.184, 1.2.78, 5.1. 362), they sing (5.1.384) and soar (3.2.23) in the play's highly lyrical language. Even Bottom, when he sings, brings forth a country ditty about birds (3.1.120-128).
Animals also inhabit the enchanted woods, though they lurk ominously, for the most part. Even a bee poses a threat (4.1.15-16), however slight. The image of preying carnivores is invoked by Helena to describe her desperate pursuit of Demetrius in 2.1.232-233. Dead sheep are part of Titania's vision of disordered nature (2J.97). Theseus evokes a night-time fear that a bush may be a bear (5.1.22). Potential tragedy is presented in a humorous context only, in the artisans' Interlude, but in that episode tragedy is wrought by a ravening lion. Puck, introducing the fairies' blessings with a reminder of the cruel world that they may also be associated with, remarks that 'the hungry lion roars, / And the wolf behowls the moon' (5.1.357-358).
Indeed, the dream-world of the play involves several hints of nightmare, providing a contrast to its harmonies of love. Hermia awakes from a nightmare at the end of 2.2, and the 'drooping fog, as black as Acheron' (3.2.357) summoned by Puck to deceive Lysander and Demetrius carries a hint of terror, though its purpose is benign. Shakespeare never lets the fairy world seem altogether sweet and light; Puck has a touch of malice to his personality, and he reminds the audience of the fairies' alliance to dark powers in the speech, cited above, that introduces the final ritual, the blessing of the house.
One of the functions of that blessing, indeed, is to exorcise all potential evil at last. The interlude has just performed a similar task in rendering a lovers' tragedy as farce. In fact. Quince, Bottom, and the boys act as an earthy counterweight to the uncanny airiness of the fairies. This is like an exorcism, because the unreal world of Puck and Oberon, Titania and Peaseblossom is supremely alien and potentially dangerous. The mortals can be manipulated and never know it: the lovers, returning to Athens, believe themselves to have awakened from dreams (4.1.197-198), as does Bottom (4.1.204).
But generations of viewers and readers and critics have felt compelled to ask whether Shakespeare intends us to take the enchanted woods as dream or as reality. The title of the play—related to 'midsummer madness', proverbially a lovers' sickness—suggests that the mortals' experience in the woods is but a figment, perhaps that the whole play is. But we the audience, having witnessed it ourselves, may agree with Hippolyta that 'all the story of the night told over, . . . grows to something of great constancy' (5.1.23-26). Unlike Theseus, who sees only lunacy in the 'forms of things unknown [that] imagination bodies forth' (5.1.14-15), Hippolyta recognizes the essential reality, or constancy, that 'things unknown' have, when given by the 'poet's pen ... a local habitation and a name' (5.1.16-17). We the audience can realize even more: that the play, the poet's embodiment of imaginary things, has made the unreal real.
We must return to our starting point, the occasion for which the play was evidently written. Shakespeare's original audience, guests at a wedding, was removed from the world of reality, just as modern audiences are, and then returned to it by the ritual at its close. The exact definition of reality is not addressed by the play; indeed, the play's ambiguity on the point is deliberate. The experience is all that matters, and the experience, as Bottom knew, is a profound one. When he wakes from his experience in the woods and observes, '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' (4.1.209-212). Bottom has experienced, though he is unable to express it, the depths of mystery that underlie all things, real and unreal alike. By evoking such awareness, the play fulfils its original and primary function as a celebratory hymn to the beauties of married love.
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