A Midsummer Night’s Dream marks the maturation of William Shakespeare’s comic form beyond situation and young romantic love. Shakespeare adds to the richness of comic structure by interweaving the love plot with a cast of rustic guildsmen, who are out of their element as they strive to entertain the ruler with a classic play of their own. The play also features a substructure of fairy forces, whose unseen antics influence the world of humans. With this invisible substructure of dream and chaos, A Midsummer Night’s Dream not only explores the capriciousness and changeability of love (as the young men switch their affections from woman to woman in the blinking of an eye) but also introduces the question of the psychology of the subconscious.
Tradition held that on midsummer night, people would dream of the one they would marry. As the lovers enter the chaotic world of the forest, they are allowed, with hilarious results, to experience harmlessly the options of their subconscious desires. (Arthos, 84) By focusing in the last act on the play presented by the rustic guildsmen, Shakespeare links the imaginative world of art with the capacity for change and growth within humanity. This capacity is most laughingly realized in the play by the transformation of the enthusiastic actor, Bottom, into half-man, half-ass, and an alteration that continues to delight audiences.
The play was originally performed at a marriage ceremony in 1595, and the plot is framed by the four-day suspension of ordinary life in Athens in expectation of the nuptial celebration of Theseus and his queen, Hippolyta. Both characters invoke the moon as they anticipate their union. The lunar spirit of nebulousness, changeability, and lunacy dominates much of the play’s action.
William Shakespeare’s comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream includes four interwoven plots: the two sets of lovers who flee into the woods, the upcoming nuptials of Theseus and Hippolyta, the battle of the sexes between Oberon and Titania and the play rehearsals and performance by the “rude mechanicals.” The four plots merge in the last two acts as the four lovers’ pair off (Hermia and Lysander, Helena and Demetrius) and join the newlyweds Theseus and Hippolyta in the viewing of the tragedy Pyramus and Thisby. Shakespeare’s comedy concludes with the joining of these three couples, as well as with the reconciliation of the fourth, Oberon and Titania. (Arthos, 96)
As the play begins, Egeus, upset that his daughter Hermia desires to marry Lysander rather than Demetrius, demands from Theseus that she be killed or sent to a nunnery. Hermia and Lysander, desperate because of the obstinacy of Egeus, flee to the woods in order to escape him. Helena, Hermia’s friend who loves Demetrius, informs him of the plot, hoping that he will forget Egeus’ daughter and love her instead. Demetrius, however, scorns her love and follows the couple into the woods with Helena in pursuit. (Brown, 186)
As the four lovers sleep, Oberon orders Puck to place love juice in the eyes of Demetrius so that he will love Helena, yet Puck mistakenly puts the potion in the eyes of Lysander. Lysander consequently falls in love with Helena; Puck then attempts to rectify the situation by placing the juice in Demetrius’ eyes. As a result, both men, who have been pursuing Hermia, scorn her and desire Helena, who previously had no suitors. A significant section of the comedy involves the return of the men to their rightful lovers Lysander to Hermia and Demetrius to Helena. (Brown, 179)
Meanwhile, the “rude mechanicals” (poor, honest, and well-meaning working-class men), led by Bottom the weaver, decide to put on a play a tragedy to celebrate the marriage of Theseus to Hippolyta. As the men rehearse, Oberon and Titania fight because he is jealous that she possesses a changeling boy. Oberon enlists Puck’s help to steal the boy away from her. To humiliate Titania further, Oberon orders Puck to place the love juice in her eyes; she then falls in love with Bottom, whom Puck has transformed into an ass. Satisfied with his triumph, Oberon allows Puck to undo the spell, and the couple reconciles. The rude mechanicals then perform the tragedy in front of Theseus and Hippolyta and the two couples, who have left the woods. Shakespeare’s comedy concludes with all four romantic couples being content.
Shakespeare’s comedies, like those of most Renaissance playwrights, involve love and its obstacles. Much of the comedy in A Midsummer Night’s Dream derives from the attempt of Lysander and Hermia to remain together while overcoming the “blocking figure”. The audience must wonder, however, whether Lysander and Hermia, as well as Demetrius and Helena, actually love each other. While it is the love potion that alters the objects of the men’s affections, one may interpret the juice as a metaphor for lovers’ inconstancy. (Brown, 186) The juice only contains magic because the male lovers do not possess a fervent and true love. It is significant that Lysander and Demetrius change their minds about which they love, but Hermia and Helena never waver; perhaps Shakespeare correlates faithfulness with gender.
Audience members generally support the relationship between Lysander and Hermia partly because her father does not. They are struck by his indifference to his daughter’s happiness: He prefers that she die rather than be happy with a man of whom he does not approve. Egeus, furthermore, provides no reason to Theseus as to why he does not support Lysander; it is as if he disapproves for arbitrary reasons merely to exert his will. His abuse of paternal authority renders him absurd but dangerous nevertheless. His support for Demetrius colors the audience’s point of view of the young lover. If one supports Lysander, one cannot approve of Demetrius, who initially enters the woods in the role of obstructionist, not lover. (Calderwood, 63)
Male domination also plays an integral role in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Shakespeare links the romantic relationships with male authority and aggressiveness. When Demetrius cannot persuade Hermia to love him, he attempts to rape her. Theseus marries Hippolyta after first subduing her physically in battle. Oberon, already coupled with Titania, feels compelled to control her by possessing her changeling, of whom he is jealous.
The rude mechanicals choose poorly by deciding to perform a lover’s tragedy at a wedding celebration, yet the choice may not be far-fetched in terms of the plot. (Barber, 130) Although this comedy ends happily, much of the play demonstrates the potential for tragedy. Demetrius could have raped Hermia. Helena could have ended up with both suitors while Hermia lost both. Oberon could have remained in his bitter struggle with Titania, who, in turn, could have remained in love with an ass (Bottom). These relationships could have terminated forever. Part of the comic charm of the play derives from the fact that the complications work out so that the conclusion, which could be unhappy, results in joy, marriage, and order. (Calderwood, 58)
The play is partly about order and disorder. Athens represents the order of a civilized society, while the forest symbolizes disorder and chaos. (Brown, 185) The woods prove more appealing, however, because it allows for freedom, while the city, with its law that a woman who refuses to marry the man whom her father chooses may die, demonstrates the evils of a restrictive culture. The romantic relationships work themselves out successfully in the disordered, not in the ordered, society. (Barber, 127)
The play concludes with the play-within-a-play, as the audience watches Hermia and Lysander, Helena and Demetrius, and Theseus and Hippolyta view the play of the rude mechanicals. The lovers gently mock the incompetent actors, with humor but without malice. The play-within-a-play permits Shakespeare to provide commentary and inside jokes regarding stagecraft.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, first performed in 1595 and then published in 1600, is one of William Shakespeare’s best-loved plays and remains popular. After such simple comedies as The Comedy of Errors, Shakespeare began to write more sophisticated comedies such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In this play, one sees more than a play built merely around mistaken identities. One finds more complex, three-dimensional characters and a more sophisticated theme.
Although A Midsummer Night’s Dream does possess the potential for tragedy, the play is much lighter in tone and theme than later Shakespearean dark comedies, also known as problem plays, such as The Merchant of Venice Measure for Measure. These dramas are much darker in tone and much more troublesome in their endings than A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The problem plays conclude with the success of unlikable and unsavory characters, who unite in marriage with wonderful women; A Midsummer Night’s Dream, however, ends with perfect order and three marriages that promise to be blissful. The reconciliations are complete and sincere.
Arthos, John. “The Spirit of the Occasion.” In Shakespeare’s Use of Dream and Vision. Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1977: 84-97.
Brown, John Russell. Shakespeare and His Comedies. New York: Methuen, 1957: 179-88.
Calderwood, James L. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. New York: Twayne, 1992: 57-63.
Barber, Cesar Lombardi. Shakespeare’s Festive Comedy: A Study of Dramatic Form and Its Relation to Social Custom. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972: 126-31.
Shakespeare, William. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. (New Folger Library Shakespeare) Washington Square Press, 2004.