Days Reality to Nights Imagination
In Midsummer Nights Dream there is a lot of role playing, a lot of juxtapositions that question the boundaries of ideas, of people, and of reality and truth. The play overall uses several groups of characters set in two time periods, night and day, to show the progression of love. As Shakespeare questions the validity of love within the play he broadens love to represent much of lifes greater truths and questions. The periods of night and day are also important as Shakespeare equates these periods into two realms of life; the day as reality and reason, and the night as imaginary and irrational. By setting this foundation, Shakespeare goes on to argue the value of genres that show imagination and irrationality and their ability to tell more truth than reality and rationality. Using the night, Shakespeare proves that in the worlds of dreams, there is more light, more truth, than day. By presenting a false and wavering love Shakespeare illuminates to the audience just to what extent the larger questions, truths, and ideas can be answered within the world of imagination in contrast to the world of reality.
Shakespeare opens the play opens with a problem of love inequality. We see the lovers Lysander, Hermia, and Demetrius, who have a love triangle problem such that the two males are in love with the same woman. The problem is further complicated by the fact that Hermias father wants her to marry Demetrius, or to be put to death. Although the problem seems a bit excessive with the father wanting his daughters death, it is still plausible. Shakespeare also notes that Demetrius was once in love with Helena creating more tension to the love triangle. This entire problem is brought in daylight before the duke, Theseus. Theseus quickly resolves one of the problems stating that Hermia does not have to die but could live a life as a nun. However it is important to point out that he does not address the lovers inequality. After affirming his ultimatum to Hermia of marrying Demetrius or to be a nun, Theseus leaves with Demetrius and Hermias father.
There are several connections made within the first act alone, one of which is the connection between Theseus, day, and reason/reality. Both the first and second appearances of the duke are in the afternoon, associating Theseus to daylight. With behavioral change around Theseus, Shakespeare links Theseus to reason and reality. An example of this is the altered behavior of Lysander and Hermia when Theseus leaves in the first act. We see as Theseus leaves the lovers Hermia and Lysander become overly dramatic. Hermia instead of focusing on her ultimatum is more obsessed with her looks and Lysander, instead of winning over Hermias father, proposes another solution to their problem, running away. However in Theseuss presence characters around him show some ability to be reasonable. This idea of changed behavior around Theseus is further reinforced when the duke reappears again in the fourth act. We see all the lovers behave in good sense even though Demetrius and Lysander were just about to kill each other the night before. With Theseus connected to day he becomes reasons epicenter in the play.
Employing Theseus as pinnacle of reason and reality Shakespeare points out the ability of reason to solve problems. We see that Theseus is able to let Hermia live, solving one of her problems. He cannot, however, address her larger issue of having two men in love with her. This shows two important points about reason and reality. Shakespeare makes the point that reason and reality cannot fully comprehend or answer the larger questions that haunt us, and the example the author gives is love. The second point Shakespeare makes is that it takes more than reason to answer these questions as reason still demands Hermia to marry Demetrius or be a nun. Including this idea of it takes more than reason to answer lifes unanswered questions the play progress on to show another path to solving problems, imagination.
Before Shakespeare shows a path to understand the truth of the nature of love and of the lovers portrayed in the play, he first juxtaposes days rationality to the nights irrationality. He does this by complicating the plot of the play during the night. The medium for the twists in the plot is the love potion which brings about worlds of dreams and imagination. The end result of the love potion is drastic behavioral changes in Shakespeares characters eventually creating improbable events occurring during the night.
Lysander's love, that would not let him bide,
Fair Helena, who more engilds the night
Than all yon fiery oes and eyes of light.
Why seek'st thou me? Could not this make thee know,
The hate I bare thee made me leave thee so? (Pg. 49, Act III.2)
An example of changed behavior during day and night is Lysander. In the day Lysander proclaims his love to Hermia and proposes to run away with her so they can be married and be together. Yet in a single day he displays opposite actions such that he runs away in the middle of the night in pursuit of another girl, Helena. When he is approached later by Hermia and she asks him why he left her, he says that it was because of the hate he had for her that made him leave her. Lysander here also portrays two opposite emotions towards Hermia; love during the day and hate during the night, making the audience question the reasonableness of the events at night. The idea of changed behavior during day and night goes even further, up to the point that the roles of the lovers are switched. The result of all this chaos is to make theme of irrationality at night as clear as possible, as the lovers behavior plainly shows their foolish mindset.
Another interesting tool Shakespeare uses to contrast reality and imagination is to question the validity of the actions during the night. In the day no one questions the plot mostly because of its coherency and probability. However the events of the night are so drastically different with fairies, magic potions, and an ass-headed man that the end result is an audience not believing in the play. Shakespeare builds on this unbelief of the audience by adding in the theme of dreams. Dreams have built in foundations of irrationality, imagination, and unreality and through the voice of Puck, Shakespeare extends the foundations of dreams towards the entire play as well as to the audience.
If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended:
That you have but slumbered here,
While these visions did appear;
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend.