That my days have been a dream:
Yet if hope has flown away
In a night, or in a day,
In a vision or in none,
Is it therefore the less gone?
All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream
A Dream within a Dream E.A. Poe 1849
'The conscious mind gives us one way of making sense of our environment. But the unconscious mind gives us other, more supple ways.', (2011) David Brooks article on the Social Animal tells us that the cognitive revolution of the last thirty years has broadened our perspective in relation to living. However, it can be argued that Shakespeare, in the 16thC, offered this outlook in his comedy A Midsummer Nights Dream. Shakespeares play is one of radical ideas and emotion, it subtly points out the various societal issues of the time. By employing the dramatic device of dream it requires the audience to use their imagination to enjoy what appears to be a fairytale of love and comedy, while covertly portraying and challenging the struggles for power that existed. I aim to explore the concept that the notion of dream in A Midsummer Nights Dream portrayed a dual society each with struggles of power and potential opportunity played out by mortals in law abiding Athens and the creatures of the imaginative fairytale forest.
Dreams are phenomena that are continuing to be studied by scientists and psychologists as a means to understanding their use. They have been linked with our hopes, desires, emotions and expression (Boyd Barrett, 1923). Some suggest that they are merely an imaginative collection of images that portray our days events however, there is no conclusive evidence to suggest their true nature, but there is little disagreement that they are an extension of our imagination and imagination has been fundamental in progressing human society.
All great thinkers and doers have been those who have had the ability to foresee a future built on equality and fairness, but not recognised for their visionary thinking at the time. Shakespeares play on a basic level can be seen to be a play of love, celebration and comedy. Alternatively it can be appreciated as a beautifully imaginative vision that tackles a multitude of social issues, subtly disguised behind the abstract concept of dream and social imagination. Shakespeares ability to tackle social issues creatively and in a visionary way through his plays and poetry is a testament to the enduring popularity of his work, that any generation to date can relate.
The notion of dream within the play justifies the irrational behaviour of the characters and the complex plot within the play. The play itself is seemingly at times without meaning, one event unfolds only to be met with a more bizarre turn of events, that unpredictability embodies our own experience of dream and allows the play to be somewhat plausible in the audiences eyes. Mandel (1973) reminds us that while the audience is aware that the events unfolding on stage are a construct of the playwrights imagination, dream is a common element between the actors and the audience. For the Renaissance audience the distinction between what was real and what was supernatural was not so clear as it is to us (Mandel, 1973). Any event that may appear to be irksome or leaves the audience unsettled is put to ease with Pucks final speech he appeases the audience encouraging them to consider what they have witnessed No more yielding but a dream (iv, 1 line)
There are four plots developing simultaneously within the play, the lovers, the mechanicals, the fairy folk and the mythological Athenian rulers. The plot of the lovers focuses on the complexities of young love but it also serves to highlight the treatment of women. Women in Athens are at the mercy of their male counterparts. Fathers decide who their daughters marry and as a result their future. For Hermia marriage is an institution that will imprison her into a loveless and unhappy life. Hippolyta the Amazon Queen, who Harold Bloom (1998) has been referred to as the tamed amazon has been won by the conquest of her groom to be, Theseus. Athens is governed by structures of social order and law. The nocturnal forest offers possibilities for the mortals that could not exist in the cold harsh light of day in Athens.
The elements that surround the forest amplify the atmosphere of dream, all events that unfold in the forest are at night, a time of uncertainty and of the unknown. There are supernatural creatures, the fairies and Bottoms metamorphoses to an Ass, the poetic language used by the fairies and the resulting imaginary evoked combine to deliver a forest that becomes a place of imagination and possibility under the guise of dream. As with many of the events in the play, the position of the Fairy Queen Titania is baffling. She appears on equal grounds with King Oberon and is strong in opposition to him, when Oberon demands obedience Tarry, rash wanton. Am I not thy lord?(act 2, scene 1) Titania replies levelly Then I must be thy lady (act 2 scene 1), she implies that she deserves equal respect. The balance of power shifts when she is tricked by the power of love-in-idleness inflicted on her by Oberon. Magic is used against her as a weapon for Oberon to assert his male supremacy and gain ownership of the Changeling boy. The power of love-in-idleness puts Titania in a dreamlike state but allows her a certain freedom, the ability to love without being blinded by physical appearance. Once she is freed from it however, she is repulsed by Bottom and remains subservient to Oberon.
Helena who has no lover and is undesirable in Athens becomes the focus of both men in the forest, who declare undying love for her. While Lysander is awakened from this particular dream, Demetrius remains in trance permanently. Dream in this instance can suggest that love is an illusion and Summers (1984) agrees that This dream presents love in an astonishing number of kinds or forms as fantasy or illusion, infatuation, obsession but similar to a dream various issues within the play weave its way to another with blurred lines and vision and little explanation offered.
The last act is almost a parody of a dream. The wedding celebrations are in full swing and the mechanicals and performing their play of Thisbe and Pyramus for the newlyweds. We not only have a play within a play, we have an audience watching an audience (the newlyweds). The performance is interrupted several times by the actors (mechanicals) to provide commentary on their play and also by the newlyweds who comment on the play. The strangeness of the situation is reminiscent of dreams where one is a bystander in ones own dream watching as scenarios unfold. The bizarre performance seen by both audiences can very much be compared to a dream.
While all characters have left the forest it can be suggested that Athens is in a dreamlike state, the dream within a dream. It can allude to the thought that the wrongs in society cannot be righted until we expand our imagination. Dreams can reveal possibility but the complexity of realizing a vision remains in the dilemma that dreams are not accepted as truth but by their nature are dismissed as fairytale. This is a sentiment that Bottom expresses having awaked from his bizarre experience within the forest. Man is but an ass if he go about to expound this dream etc. Bottom is the only character within the play that weaves into both realities, he is Shakespeares Everyman (Bloom, 1998) he is the common ordinary man that experiences the effects of both societies in Athens he is the lovable fool, in the forest he is the object of affection for the queen. However in or out of the dream he remains the character, as constructed by Shakespeare, that the audience are captivated by and so it is Bottom that acknowledges the importance of dream
A Midsummer Nights Dream is a carefully constructed play that endeavors to reveal certain inequalities that exist within society subtly masked through the notion of dream. Shakespeare reveals these issues through the characters experiences within the imaginative creation of the fairy inhabited forest. As a result it is never clear if any of the characters are truly awake, again paralleling a thought that people are often blind to certain issues within society. It is not only a play that if full of humor and mischief it implores the audience to open their mind to possibility and vision.
Brooks, David Social Animal The New Yorker, viewed 27th October 2011