Introduction to A Midsummer Night’s Dream
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of the earliest and famous plays by Shakespeare written in 1595-96. The first stage performance was in 1605. It is a unique comedy combining a few elements of tragedy, as well. Multiple sub-plots work under the main plot that is about the wedding ceremony of two characters; Theseus and Hippolyta. These sub-plots reveal their actions in a bewitching forest surrounded by fairies. All this makes this play a comedy worth-reading and worth-watching.
Summary of A Midsummer Night’s Dream
The play opens with two characters Theseus and Hippolyta seen planning their marriage. Meanwhile, Egeus enters the stage with his daughter, Hermia. Her two lovers also accompany her. She wants to marry Lysander, though, Egeus wants Hermia to marry the other guy, Demetrius. He also states that Hermia will die if she does not marry Demetrius. Despite this, Hermia and Lysander plan to escape. Helena loves Demetrius and upon knowing the love affair between Hermia and Lysander and their elopement plan, she quickly reveals their program to Demetrius to win his love.
On the other hand, Peter Quince prepares a few fellow actors to play their roles in the play “Pyramus and Thisbe” on the occasion of Theseus’ wedding. The key role is supposed to be played by Nick Bottom, who is not a very good actor. Titania and King Oberon argue with each other about the refusal of Titania to hand over to Oberon the Indian boy, whom she is raising. Oberon deputes his jester Puck to search for a plant whose juice could induce someone to love passionately the moment he/she looks at that person.
Oberon, then, asks Puck to pour love juice in the eyes of Demetrius to make her love Helena when he wakes up. He mistakenly puts that juice in the eyes of Lysander, thinking he is Demetrius. Helena passes by and he immediately wakes up and falls passionately in love with Helena. Simultaneously, Oberon pours the love juice into the eyes of sleeping Titania.
Puck who is not satisfied with Bottom’s performance hands him a donkey head. He does not know anything about this transformation and moves everywhere until he wakes Titania, who at once, gives him her heart. She frees the Indian boy willingly only to pay attention to Bottom. As the plan of Oberon is fulfilled, he shakes off the magic from her and makes Puck take away donkey-head from the beloved of Titania.
When the play progresses, the love of Lysander and Demetrius for Helena intensify. As the differences increase between both the lovers, Oberon asks Puck to create a kind of fog so that the lovers may not be able to see each other. As they are asleep, Puck casts a spell on Lysander, making both the lovers unable to remember anything regarding the incident that happened in the forest.
Finally, the excited lovers enter the stage, where Theseus now decides that it is the ripe time to let the play “Pyramus and Thisbe” be performed. Then the players perform that comic play, sending the audience into fits of laughter.
Major Themes in A Midsummer Night’s Dream
- Transformation: It is a recurring theme, as characters go through the process of transformation during the play. This transformation is both physical as well as emotional such as Lysander experiences it in his emotion due to the mischief of a fairy, while Bottom experiences a physical transformation from man to a donkey and vice versa. Similarly, Demetrius’ transformation is of love from Helena to Hermia and then vice versa which is similar to Titania, whose transformation is from Oberon to Bottom and vice versa.
- Foolishness: The theme of foolishness also prevails in this play. Teenage love, in this play, is also seen imbued with foolishness as Bottom declares “O what fools these mortals be” to refer to the childish and stupid acts of these grown-up characters whose love turns from one person to another with the petty administration of a drop of love-potion.
- Supernatural: To create a space for comic situations, Shakespeare always brings a supernatural element in this play. The magical effect is also apparent through love-potion which affects the emotions of four lovers besides fairies. Puck and the fairies, then, take the stage, showing the use of Deus ex machine, in other words, a hopeless situation.
- Love: Love acts as the primary theme in this play similar to other plays by Shakespeare. Characters love other attractive people around them and sometimes develop negative feelings for them later. This indicates that original love is stronger than ordinary physical love. The author proves it in the case of four Athenian lovers whose love finally comes out to be whimsical and weak such as Lysander expresses his love for Hermia, while she loves Lysander. Demetrius loves Helena but then turns to Hermia, while Helena loves him.
- Marriage: The play asserts that true marriage is the culmination point of love. The broken relationships can be restored only through marriages and their subsequent happiness. The triple marriage in the fourth act of Theseus with Hippolyta, Lysander with Hermia, and Demetrius with Helena seem to have resolved all the problems that the lovers have.
- Appearance and Reality: The title and the content of the play also suggest that things are not what they appear to be. Shakespeare creates many dreamlike situations such as the moonlight at night that transforms the appearances of the things to which it gives light the love that changes from person to person.
- Order and Disorder: The Egeus’ family loses order when his daughter desires to wed against his wishes. The social norms suggest that the father’s wishes must be respected. As the urban people go to woods, the order in the social norms and relationships breaks down. Therefore, the play being a comedy restores the relationships easily.
- Gender: The gender dilemma is obvious in this play. Hermia is in tension with how to choose her husband and for that, she has to fight with her father. However, her father being a male, is in the position to impose his will upon her. Then there is tension between Oberon and Titania that disturbs the peace of this world. The marriage issue between Theseus and Hippolyta also depicts the wide gender gap.
Major Characters in A Midsummer Night’s Dream
- Puck: Puck is Oberon’s clown who is an expert in playing different types of magical tricks on humans. His pranks create peals of laughter on the face of the audience. For example, he mistakenly puts the potion to Lysander in place of Demetrius making the whole strategy upside down. He is also responsible for transforming the head of Bottom into the head of a donkey.
- Oberon: Oberon, being the king of the fairyland, seems to be at daggers drawn with Titania, who does not want to release an Indian boy whom he wants to hand over to a knight. His deep desire to take revenge upon Titania compels him to ask Puck to bring a love potion which creates a lot of confusion in the play.
- Titania: Titania is the pretty queen of the fairyland. She tries to stop her husband’s attempts to hand over the Indian prince to a knight. Her character gives way to a contrast motif when her love for Nick Bottom is created through the use of a love potion.
- Lysander: Lysander is a young man who is enamored with Hermia. His love process shows the problems one can face in love. He is unable to marry Hermia as her father is against this marriage. When Lysander flees away to the jungle with Hermia, he becomes a victim of magic due to which he develops a love for Helena.
- Demetrius: Demetrius is a young man who loves Hermia. During the play, his love for Helena awakens. It is because of the nature of his love which is not based on mature feelings. His fickle love is evident when he threatens Helena to leave her in the dangerous forest
- Hermia: The daughter of Egeus, Hermia loves Lysander and wants to marry him. She is the best friend of Helena. Then we see that both Lysander and Demetrius are attracted to Helena because of the influence of love-potion administered by the fairies. Hermia thinks that Helena has won the love of her lover with her beautiful height. Later, Puck solves the problem and Hermia retrieves her lost love.
- Helena: Although Helena loves Demetrius, when Demetrius happens to see Hermia, he falls in love with Hermia and leaves Helena. Helena becomes very confused and disturbed when she learns that Hermia is befooling her. She is the one from whom it can be gathered that love is arbitrary and quite unlike men, women can hardly choose; rather, they have to wait for men to choose them.
- Egeus: Hermia’s father, Egeus wants Hermia to marry Demetrius. However, Hermia is in love with Lysander. She clearly says that she cannot do so, though, he wants his daughter to do what he desires. Her father threatens that she must be ready to face the law if she refuses to marry the man he chose. When the play ends, he comes to know that Hermia and Lysander have fled away. That is why he wants to give them a severe penalty to which Theseus expresses his opposition and allows them to marry according to their own will.
- Theseus: He is the duke of Athens and engaged to Hippolyta. His character plays a balancing role which is supposed to put disarrayed incidents on the right track. His appearance is felt only at the start and at the end of the play. Theseus is never in dreamlike situations like other characters.
- Hippolyta: Hippolyta is the celebrated queen of the mysterious Amazons. She is to be married to Theseus. Just like Theseus, she is the symbol of balance and order.
- Nick Bottom: Nick Bottom is a prominent character who is supposed to act on the occasion of Theseus’ wedding. He exerts his abilities as a good advisor but, being overconfident, makes ludicrous mistakes. He also makes bad use of language.
- Peter Quince: He is a carpenter and one of the six mechanicals who are supposed to perform a play at the wedding ceremony of Theseus. He has himself written the script of the play. He is often at war with Bottom who puts him aside on several occasions.
- Francis Flute: Francis Flute is shown as the lowest among all other mechanicals. However, his performance remains quite impressive.
- Robin Starveling: Robin Starveling is a slightly rude character with comic relief who plays the role of moonshine in Pyramus and Thisbe. His humorous performance sends the entire audience into fits of laughter.
Writing Style of A Midsummer Night’s Dream
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a combination of prose and poetry just like other plays written by Shakespeare. Here, the language varies with classes or status. For upper classes, he uses poetry to indicate refinement. On the other hand, the prose is used to represent the lower strata of society. Hence, here noblemen and fairies speak in a poetic language, whereas the actors, who belong to an ordinary class, speak in prose. This distinction also marks the great quality of Shakespeare’s work in which he makes the language self-conscious. He also uses a fine trick of playing with the words. One word sometimes refers to multiple meanings such as the word “lie” which makes language, informal at times.
Analysis of Literary Devices in A Midsummer Night’s Dream
- Alliteration: There are many pieces of evidence of alliteration in this play. For example,
i. And, which is more than all these boasts can be, \ I am beloved of beauteous Hermia. (Act -I, Scene -I, Lines, 103-104)
ii. For you, fair Hermia, look you arm yourself. (Act -I, Scene -I, Line, 117)
iii. with bloody blameful blade he bravely broached his boiling bloody breast. (Act -V, Scene -I, Line,141-142)
The lines, given above, show consonant sound repeating itself as an initial sound. In the first example, the sound /b/ is repeated; whereas in the second and third example /f/ and /b/ sounds are repeated, making the lines more poetic and more impressive than ordinary lines.
- Allusion: There are certain references from Roman and Greek Mythology in this play. The love between Dido and Aeneas is referred to in this comedy. Titania’s name has been taken from Ovid’s metamorphosis. There are also a few Biblical references in this play. In one such instance, Bottom’s contemplation over his dream clearly refers to the following lines from the Bible, “Eye had not seen, nor ear heard” which is from the first book of Corinthians.
- Allegory: A Midsummer Night’s Dream is an allegory in which characters have other deeper roles to play. Puck is a devil; Peter Quince represents Saint Peter and the Mechanicals and their play refers to Jesus and his church. Wall plays the role of the underlying partition between heaven and the earth. It also suggests the Roman Jewish war. Therefore, the play seems a religious allegory as well as satirical.
- Antagonist: The role of Demetrius in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is that of an antagonist. The play takes a vital turn when his love changes from Helena to Hermia. Here Helena’s tribulations start which stay until the end of the play. It is only through the magic that Helena and Demetrius are united to resolve the complexities of the play.
- Assonance: The play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, shows good use of assonance. For example,
i. You do me mischief. Fie, Demetrius! (Act -II, Scene -I, Line, 239)
ii. We cannot fight for love, as men may do. (Act -II, Scene -I, Line, 241)
iii. But I will wed thee in another key. (Act -I, Scene -I, Line, 18)
In the above examples, the vowel sound is repeated to give extra-musical touch and meanings to the lines. The sounds of /e/, /o/ and /i/ are repeated in the given examples respectively.
- Chiasmus: In Chiasmus, the statements are repeated in reverse order. The use of chiasmus in this play is given below:
i. The more I love, the more he hateth me. (Act -I, Scene -I, Line, 199)
ii. I give him curses, yet he gives me love. (Act -I, Scene -I, Line, 196)
iii. The more I hate, the more he follows me. (Act -I, Scene -I, Line, 198)
The use of chiasmus in the first, second, and third examples shows the literary skill of Shakespeare.
- Conflict: The major conflict in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is that the people want to interfere in the lives of others and want to decide their fate. This desire creates conflict among the characters. One such example is that of Puck who transforms the love of characters and he also changes the character of Bottom by changing his head.
- Consonance: It refers to the use of similar consonant sounds in words occurring close to each other. The play meticulously makes use of consonance such as:
i. Through bog, through bush, through brake, through brier. Sometime a horse I’ll be, sometime a hound. (Act -III, Scene -I, Line, 49-50).
In this example the consonant sound /r/ is repeated to make the lines musical and artistic.
- Dramatic Irony: The play shows good use of irony at various places. In dramatic irony, the audience knows that the character has to face a fate which she/he does not know. In this play, the fairies try to make some characters fall in love and then these fairies turn their love into hatred. Sometimes, they think that it is a dream. However, the audience knows the reality behind this phenomenon.
- Deus Ex Machina: As love and magic are the two main streams in this play, the use of Dues ex machina is quite natural. The act of Puck who pours love-potion in the eyes is one such example. The other is the appearance and acts of the fairies.
- Imagery: The play exposits many images that appeal to the five senses and create the required impression in the minds of the audience. For example,
i. It is not night when I do see your face,
Therefore I think I am not in the night;
Nor doth this wood lack worlds of company,
For you in my respect are all the world: (Act -II, Scene -I, Line, 206-209)
ii. O, methinks, how slow /This old moon wanes! (Act -I, Scene -I, Lines 3-4)
Here, the night is a powerful image, evoking feelings of death, fear, and solitude. Forest evokes a magic spell. In the second example, the moon reflects the romance and hurdles in romance.
- Metaphor: There are many examples of metaphor in this play. For example,
i. Your eyes are lode-stars and your tongue’s sweet air… (Act -I, Scene -I, Line 183)
ii. But earthlier happy is the rose distill’d Than that which, withering on the virgin thorn Grows, lives, and dies, in single blessedness… (Act -I, Scene -I, Lines 76-78)
iii. War, death, or sickness, did lay siege to it, Making it momentary as a sound. (Act -I, Scene -I, Line, 142)
In the first example of metaphor, Hermia’s eyes are compared to a guiding start and her tongue is compared to sweet air. Similarly rose, war, death, and many other metaphors are used by Shakespeare.
- Mood: As the play is a tragic-comedy, the play demonstrates somber as well as comic mood, but comedy weighs heavily at times which shows that most of the time, the play shows a comic mood.
- Protagonist: The protagonist is the one who plays an important and usually good role in the play. There can be more than one protagonist in any play. In this play, Lysander, Hermia, and Helena can be called protagonists, as their role is primarily for the development of the play. Moreover, they do not have any intention to harm anyone.
- Pun: The play shows several examples of puns. For example,
i. Then by your side no bed room me deny.
For, lying so, Hermia, I do not lie’. (Act -II, Scene -II, Lines, 40-41)
ii. No die, but an ace for him. (Act -V, Scene -I, Line, 291)
A pun is evident in the use of words like lying, lie, ace, and ass, as they show double meanings in these contexts. In the first lying means to lie down as well as a lie, while the second shows play upon die.
- Paradox: The play also shows good use of paradoxes such as:
i. The most lamentable comedy and most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisbe. (Act -I, Scene -II, Line 5)
Here, the phrase “lamentable comedy” shows the use of paradox.
- Rhetorical Questions: Rhetorical questions are not meant for an answer. They are meant to charge the audience and make the point more impressive.
i. Am I not Hermia? Are not you Lysander? (Act -III, Scene -II, Line 280)
How now, my love? Why is your cheek so pale?
ii. How chance the roses there do fade so fast? (Act -I, Scene -I, Lines, 128-129)
These questions are used to express her despair and to make the addressee believe in what she says. In the second example, Lysander shows his concern about her disturbance through these questions whose answers he already knows.
- Simile: Shakespeare has made the best use of similes to make this comedy worth-reading.
i. To you your father should be as a god (Act -I, Scene -I, Lines, 47)
ii. And then the moon, like a silver bow.( Act -I, Scene -I, Line, 9)
iii. Brief as the lightning in the collied night. (Act -I, Scene -I, Line, 145)
These similes compare father to a god, moon to a silver bow and brevity to lightning to communicate the ideas to the audience in a better way.
- Soliloquy: It is usually a character’s speech in which he or she uncovers his/her mental processes to the audience. The play shows some good examples of soliloquies. For example,
i. How happy some o’er other some can be!
Through Athens I am thought as fair as she.
But what of that? Demetrius thinks not so.
He will not know what all but he do know.
And as he errs, doting on Hermia’s eyes…
To have his sight thither and back again. (Act -I, Scene -I, Lines 226-251)
ii. Having once this juice,
I’ll watch Titania when she is asleep,
And drop the liquor of it in her eyes.
The next thing then she waking looks upon,
Be it on lion, bear, or wolf, or bull,
On meddling monkey, or on busy ape,
She shall pursue it with the soul of love:
The first soliloquy is of Helen while the second has been delivered by Oberon.
- Verbal Irony: The play exhibits verbal irony quite nicely such as:
i. Hippolyta, I wooed thee with my sword and won thy love doing thee injuries. (Act -I, Scene -I, Line 16).
ii. but I will aggravate my voice
so that I will roar you as gently as any sucking dove’ (Act -I, Scene -II, Lines 78-80)
Here Theseus does not mean physical harm as is expressed in the literal sense of the words. In the second example ‘aggravate’ and ‘roar’ are used but instead of their literal sense, the opposite sense is meant.