If one is a scrupulous reader and also he have read most works of Shakespeare, it is not hard for him to find that two themes present in many of Shakespeare's plays. That are the struggle of men to dominate women and the conflict between father and daughter, and it are those two themes that form a large part of the dramatic content of A Midsummer Night's Dream.
In the first act both themes of tension appear, when Theseus remarks that he has won Hippolyta by defeating her, "Hippolyta, I wooed thee with my sword" (1.1.16), and the conflict between Egeus and his daughter, Hermia, also turns up adding to this war of the genders are Lysander and Demetrius who are both wooing Hermia away from her father.
Recalling Romeo and Juliet, Theseus offers Hermia the choice of the nunnery or death. As always in Shakespeare (note Juliet), this is not a practicable way for a young pretty woman. Hermia therefore decides to run away rather than face the certainty of death. It is therefore necessary to realize that A Midsummer Night's Dream is quite a play about one finding oneself in order to be free from these authoritative and sexual conflicts.
The forest therefore is the location where all these struggles must be resolved. Hermia will try to seek her freedom from Egeus in the woods, fighting against arranged marriages and seeking for passionate and true love.
A remarkable aspect of A Midsummer Night's Dream is that it contains a play within a play, which at first masks the very real events, yet later they will reveal an immense (although funny) plot to the reader that what will happen in A Midsummer Night's Dream in the form of their Pyramus and Thisbe play. A great many scholars insist that the play not only indicate a tragedy that might have occurred if the fairies had not intervened the four leading characters affairs, but also comment on the nature of reality and the theater. Nick Bottom, afraid the lion will frighten the ladies, get them to write a prologue in which the lion is revealed as only being an actor. Adding to this, Pyramus must further provide a commentary in which he informs the audience that he is not really committing suicide, but is only acting.
This play within a play is therefore used by Shakespeare to make a subtle point about theater, namely the fact that it is only acting. Elizabethan times were not so far removed from the medieval past that actors lived with impunity, regardless of their roles. The threat of censorship was very real, a fact that Shakespeare makes laughable in Pyramus and Thisbe. A further purpose of pointing out the distinction between theater and reality could have been to try and convince the public that it does not matter what is put on stage, since the audience clearly knows that it is only a facade. However, Shakespeare throws all of this into doubt with his suggestion in the epilogue that the play has only been a "dream."
Furthermore, the woods can be regarded as a place for the characters to reach adulthood and become mature. In the dialogue between Helena and Demetrius, the woods are a place to be feared, and also are a place to lose virginity. As Demetrius warns, "You do impeach your modesty too much, / To leave the city and commit yourself / Into the hands of one that loves you not; / To trust the opportunity of night / And the ill counsel of a desert place, / With the rich worth of your virginity" (2.1.214-219). Thus the forest can be figuratively read as a sort of test for the characters, a phase they must pass through in order to reach maturity.
Another fact is that the woods are not only a place which the characters must escape from, but are also a place of imagination. Hermia's fear of her dream, in which the monster and the danger are only imagined, is meant to show the reader that the danger in a play is only imagined by the audience; neither the play nor Hermia's dream are real.
What is interesting in this scene is the interchangeability of these four leading characters. Lysander and Demetrius, Helena and Hermia, each of them switches roles and becomes another person who is quite different form original themselves. One of the primary ways that Shakespeare indicates maturity is to make his characters distinct. Thus, at this act of the play the lovers are clearly not yet mature enough in their love to escape from the forest. Puck makes this clear by the way he leads them around in circles until they all collapse in exhaustion. It is this interchangeability that must be resolved before the lovers can fully exit from the forest.
The essence of this interchangeability is further evidenced by the characters themselves. Helena says to Hermia:
"We, Hermia, like two artificial gods Have with our needles created both one flower, Both on one sampler, sitting on one cushion, Both warbling of one song, both in one key, As if our hands, our sides, voices, and minds Had been incorporate. So we grew together, Like to a double cherry" (3.2.204-210).
"Like to a double cherry." This line sums up the reason why they are lost in the forest: it is necessary for them to become distinct from one another. After all, Lysander and Demetrius have been able to shift their love to Helena without noticing any difference and abnormality. Therefore, the forest is not only a place of maturation, but also of finding one's identity.
Perhaps the most famous line from A Midsummer Night's Dream is when Puck remarks, "Lord what fools these mortals be!" (3.2.115). His exclamation, directed at the ridiculous antics of Lysander, is also a direct jibe towards the audience. The nature of human love is challenged in this line, which implies that people will make fools of themselves because of love.
Shakespeare's challenge of what is real and what is only dreamed impenetrate in full force in this act. Oberon decides that he will resolve the conflicts once and for all, saying, "And when they wake, all this derision / Shall seem a dream and fruitless vision" (3.2.372-3). Thus the lovers are expected to wake up, each loving the correct person, and each having found his or her own identity which enables us to see a happy ending.
The transition of reality into only a dream appears a second time in Act Four. Oberon tells Titania that Bottom will "think no more of this night's accidents / But as the fierce vexation of a dream" (4.1.65-6). Indeed, this is exactly what happens: "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" (4.1.205-207).
It is the way that Bottom deals with his nightmare of a dream that is important and interesting. Not only is he not afraid of it, but he wants to turn it into a ballad. Turning a fearful nightmare into a fun song is crucial to understanding what Shakespeare has done with A Midsummer Night's Dream. This play is the Romeo and Juliet theme woven into a play, taking the sad tragedy and converting it into comedy. Thus Shakespeare is making a further comment about the nature of plays and acting, showing them to be a medium by which our worst fears can be dissipated into hilarity.
The nature of doubling emerges once again in this act, but for the last time. Hermia remarks that, "Methinks I see these things with parted eye, / when everything seems double" (4.1.186-7). This comment occurs right after Theseus has overridden Egeus' desires and agreed to let Hermia and Lysander get married. Hermia is correct about the fact that this is a doubling of marriages. In spite of escaping from the confusion of the forest, there is still a lingering uncertainty about whether Lysander and Demetrius have been able to distinguish between Helena and Hermia. The effect of having a double wedding merely makes the newfound differences more vague, making Hermia wonder if things still are in fact double.
This final act at first seems completely unnecessary to the overall plot of the play. After all, in Act Four we not only have the lovers getting married, but there has been a happy resolution to the conflict. Thus, the immediate question which arises is why Shakespeare felt it necessary to include this act.
The answer lies in the fact that Shakespeare is trying to drive home a point about theater; he wants to make it very clear that the ending to this play could just as easily have been tragedy, not comedy. The Pyramus and Thisbe play makes this very clear because it parallels the actual action of the lovers so closely. Pyramus and Thisbe decide to run away, a lion (one of the monsters in the forest) emerges and seizes Thisbe's cloak, and when Pyramus sees the bloodied cloak he rashly commits suicide. This ending could easily have been the ending to A Midsummer Night's Dream.
The final act also serves to challenge the audience's notions about reality and imagination. Seeing the pathetic acting of the artisans, Theseus remarks that, "The lunatic, the lover, and the poet / Are of imagination all compact" (5.1.7-8). By this he means that it is imagination which makes people crazy, but it is also the imagination which inspires people. Without imagination it would be much more difficult to enjoy a play, as evidenced by the farce of Pyramus and Thisbe, about which Hippolyta comments, "This is the silliest stuff that ever I heard." Theseus helps her overcome this problem by saying, "The best in this kind are but shadows, and the worst are no worse if imagination amend them" (5.1.207,208). Thus, the imagination can solve all the problems.
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