|A Midsummer Night's Dream - study guide|
This study guide is intended for GCE Advanced level students in the UK, but is suitable for university students and the general reader who is interested in Shakespeare's plays. Please use the hyperlinks in the table above to navigate this page. If you have any comments or suggestions to make about this page, please contact me by clicking on this link.
Preparing to study
This guide is written to support your study of A Midsummer Night's Dream. The guide indicates the terms in which GCE examiners will expect you to understand the play. It should be used in conjunction with study of A Midsummer Night's Dream in performance, as far as possible, and of the text in one or more editions designed for study at your level.
If you find this guide too hard, then you should perhaps look at the more elementary guide to this play on this site. Click on the link below to open this guide.
What other resources should you use? This depends on your own aptitude and readiness for study. But any serious student should expect to use at least some of the following:
Editions of the text
The most authoritative version is the Arden (University Paperbacks) edition, edited by Harold F. Brooks (ISBN 0174436068). Most students will find this challenging, although the introduction is well worth reading. Sound editions are published by Longman and Heinemann. For critical writing about the play, you should use the Casebook anthology. At a more basic level the Brodie's Notes and York Notes (Longman) may help you. For general background information about Shakespeare, Ms. Marchette Chute's Shakespeare and his Stage (University of London, 1953) is hard to beat. Use the links below to purchase these books online.
Handbooks for literature
Useful handbooks for the general study of English literature include The Cambridge Guide to Literature, The Oxford Guide to Literature, J.A. Cuddon's Dictionary of Literary Terms (Penguin, 1982) and Richard Gill's Mastering English Literature (Macmillan, 1985).
Use these books effectively: do not try to read them for extended periods like a story (unless you have unusual intellectual powers!) Study for short periods, then write down simple statements of what you want to remember, or questions to raise in class discussion.
Recordings of the play in performance
There are many feature film and TV versions of the play which you can find on VHS. One of the best of these, Elijah Moshinsky's 1980 BBC TV version is currently unavailable. Of the rest, the best version for students is probably Michael Hoffman's 1999 feature film. Click on the link below to purchase this on VHS.
Using the Web
Use other Web sites to study Shakespeare. Much the best of these is Daphne Palomar's huge portal: Mr. William Shakespeare and the Internet. Michael Cummings' Shake Sphere, Reading University's Globe Theatre Research Database and Ken Taylor's Drama in Education portal site are also worth a visit. Click on the links below to visit these sites:
Making and customizing study guides
Other people's study guides (like this one) are never as effective as your own. You may wish to use any or all of the following ways of owning your study of this play:
Introduction to the play
A Midsummer Night's Dream is more or less contemporary with Romeo and Juliet, and dates from the mid 1590s. In it, Shakespeare is painstaking in his attention to details of language (as in the early Love's Labours Lost), but the play also shows the maturity of his best later work in its stagecraft.
It is one of a group of plays known sometimes as festive comedies - the others being As You Like It and Twelfth Night. The plays are associated with festive seasons and traditional celebrations.
A Midsummer Night's Dream is more democratic than many of Shakespeare's plays - rulers, nobles, workmen and spirits all dominate the drama at different points.
Tragedy, comedy and history
As a term to describe a category (kind) of play, tragedy (which means "goat song" in classical Greek!) originates in Athens in ancient times. Aristotle (a philosopher and scientist, but no playwright) describes rules or principles for the drama which tragedians should follow. These rules have proved helpful as a working description, but should not be seen as absolute: Shakespeare, in practice, ignores them more or less. Comedy is a term applied to the humorous plays of Greek (e.g. Aristophanes) and later Roman (e.g. Terence) dramatists. For Shakespeare, a comedy is a play with a happy ending - it may or may not be comical in the modern sense of being humorous.
In trying to arrange Shakespeare's work into categories (as for publication in book form) editors have produced a third category, of histories. More recently critics have noted that Shakespeare's latest plays do not fit any of these categories easily. Thus we have problem plays (or tragi-comedies) in Measure for Measure and All's Well that Ends Well and pastoral plays or romances in Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale and The Tempest.
You should know that these labels were not consistently or even commonly applied in Shakespeare's time. Plays classed as tragedies (such as Macbeth) may have a clearly historical subject. Some of our "histories" (such as Richard II and Richard III) were advertised as tragedies at the time of their performance.
Studying the play
Shakespeare wrote plays to be seen in a complete performance which would, for A Midsummer Night's Dream, last about two and a half hours. The play would be performed by daylight (between about two and four o'clock) in the purpose-built open air theatres, or with artificial light (lanterns and candles) in private houses of wealthy patrons (The Tempest may well have been originally written for private performance: many of the special effects work best indoors and under artificial light; both Hamlet and A Midsummer Night's Dream show plays-within-the-play which are performed indoors, at night).
The plays were not written to be read or studied and (hand-written) copies of the text were originally made only for the use of the performers. It is important to remember this when you study the play as a text (with extensive editorial comment) on which you will be examined.
Shakespeare's company was the most successful of its day, and his plays filled the theatres. Many (most?) of the audience in a public performance would lack formal education and be technically illiterate (this does not mean that they were unintelligent). But these were people for whom the spoken word was of greater value than is the case today: they would be more attentive, more sensitive in listening to patterns of verse and rhyme, and aware of imagery (word pictures).
The intervals between Shakespeare's "scenes" represent changes in time or place, but not of scenery, which would be minimal or non-existent. Basic stage furniture would serve a variety of purposes, but stage properties and costume would be more elaborate and suggestive. A range of gestures and movements with conventional connotations of meaning was used, but we are not sure today how these were performed.
In order to understand a play, we have to work harder than did the Elizabethan or Jacobean audience. To see a play entire (in the theatre or on film), without interruption apart for the interval, may be needed for us to appreciate Shakespeare's strong sense of narrative drive, and to see how the text is not the play but a (loose) blueprint for performance. On the other hand, study of text and editors' notes may be necessary for us to appreciate some of the attitudes the contemporary audience brought into the theatre. Such notes may explain images and highlight patterns or structures which otherwise we might not "hear". They may explain semantic change (changes of meaning) in words or phrases used by the playwright to convey important ideas to his audience.
In watching Shakespeare in performance we are not likely ever to enjoy the instant pleasure of experiencing a work of art (like a feature film or soap-opera or first-person novel) which uses conventions and a range of cultural references which we at once understand. What is amazing is that so much is still accessible, and that by adapting the delivery of lines, and giving some visual clues, performers can make the plays work today.
The division of plays into five acts is more apparent to the dramatist (to whom it gives an idea of how the play's narrative structure will appear in performance) than to the audience (though modern audiences often know act and scene numbers). For the student (you), the numbering of acts and scenes is of enormous importance in identifying a given point in the narrative. When quoting a passage, always give act and scene number, while line numbers are helpful, too.
A map of the play
When you begin revision, make a mental "map" of the play, so you know what occurs in each scene. List the scenes down the page. After the scene number write no more than ten words about what happens. Follow this with a phrase from a notable speech, like this:
These are only suggestions. Choose a speech which is a clue to you.
The structure of the play in acts
This play is a comedy. Shakespeare first informs the audience of the (very serious) problems of the young lovers, and of the fairy king and queen, counterpointed by the less serious (to us) problems of the mechanicals in presenting their "play". By bringing the different groups of characters together in the wood, the author is able to show how the characters become more confused, before Puck, at the end of Act 3 separates the young lovers, the antidote to the love-in-idleness juice is given to Lysander, and in 4.1 Titania is also "cured" before the lovers are found by Theseus, and Bottom wakes with a hazy recollection of his "dream" (which may be no less articulate than the lovers' attempts to recall what has happened in the wood).
Most of Act 5 is superfluous to the main plot, but indispensable as comic comment on the potential for tragedy in the love of passionate young couples. Act 5 is not just an epilogue, however: the action of the three principal fairies in blessing the newly-weds, and the children to be conceived is a necessary conclusion to the misunderstandings which have gone before. Here, as in Theseus' kindly advice to Hermia in 1.1 ("Know of your youth, examine well your blood..."), in Titania's long exposition of the results of her quarrel with Oberon (2.1) and in the joy with which the fairies "rock the ground whereon these sleepers be" (4.1), we see the play's real and serious concern with fertility in the natural world, and in the world of men and their rulers, a concern which the Elizabethan audience would feel very strongly.
It is worth making a plan of each act, identifying episodes/speeches in which the principal themes of the play are addressed.
None of this is a guarantee of success in an exam. It is essential
preparation, to give you the material you need to succeed.
Key scenes explored
In this section you will find very detailed comment on the most important scenes of the play. This comment is organized under common headings:
Act 1, scene 1
This is the play's first scene, in which a number of important relationships are established, and much narrative information is given. But we see some of the themes of the play examined, and there is interest in the action and language; for these reasons the scene could be chosen by examiners.
The scene can be divided into a number of episodes:
It will be seen that the scene is marked by various exits and entrances, so that particular groupings can be contrived. At other points, as when Theseus speaks to Hermia, others remain on stage, but are at best witnesses of something more intimate.
Relationship to the play
As the play is concerned with depicting conflict in love, in several relationships, we meet here two of the four principal pairs or groups:
When we next meet Demetrius and Helena (2.1) and Lysander and Hermia (2.2) we need little explanation to know where they are and why. The wood is briefly mentioned here as a most pleasant place by day, and imagined (209 ff.) as equally pleasant by night: we, and the lovers, are unprepared for the danger and activity we will later see in this wood.
Shakespeare opens with a very formal, ceremonial procession, marked by the dignity, balance and stateliness of speech of the ruler and his consort; this is almost at once disturbed by the angry tirade of Egeus and the barbed exchanges of the young men. Between these, we find an intimate exchange which contrasts with the public quality of the procession and Egeus' complaint. Here Theseus tries a very direct and honest appeal to Hermia's judgement, keeping his authority as a means of last resort, and playing for time, though Hermia's outspokenness almost frustrates this. We are struck by Hermia's boldness (allowing for her sex, her youth and Theseus' status) which Shakespeare renders more plausible by her own apology for the "power" which emboldens her.
We are also struck by Theseus' reluctance to command, his readiness to reason; while this brief exchange goes on, the others on stage are peripheral: the whole stage area could be used to show the opposition between the rivals, as Egeus commands each to "stand forth". Theseus and Hippolyta probably occupy a central, raised position, even perhaps sitting on chairs (to represent thrones). For the exchange with Hermia, Theseus will come forward, perhaps leading her by the hand, so that their conversation is shared with the audience. Theseus' gravity and diplomacy are in sharp contrast to the heated words which follow. In order that tempers may cool before he probes the seriousness of Demetrius' new-found love for Hermia and dropping of Helena, Theseus leads away the angry father and his favourite.
In her words to her lover, we again see Hermia in an intimate situation, but her forceful yet dignified answers to the duke are here replaced by a less restrained manner. She and Lysander speak in tones which would be comic if not delivered with such force. The arrival of Helena does not curtail this: she, too, speaks with passion and seems to lack a sense of proportion.
There is some variety (but there will be more anon) in the verse form here. To achieve a mood of seriousness in the opening, the playwright uses blank verse. (Blank verse accounts for most of the text in most of Shakespeare's plays, but is used much more sparingly in this play). This is sustained until Helena's arrival, after which the characters speak in rhyming couplets. These are naturally more suited to comic moods and to the rapid imparting of narrative information. A number of other features should be noted.
Left alone on stage, Lysander and Hermia speak in an over-wrought manner, marked by such phrases as "How now, my love" or "Ay me" (verbal sighs, almost) and the stichomythia (verbal fencing) of the six alternately-spoken lines beginning with "O" and "Or", leading to the famous comment about "the course of true love".
This technique, with the further embellishment of rhyme, is used again when Hermia and Helena speak (194 ff.) of Demetrius. Helena's soliloquy is notable for the repeated reference to "Cupid" ("a child", "as boys...the boy"). She claims that love is blind, and yet seems herself "blind" to her own mistakes: she fawns on Demetrius, when she should play hard to get, and now intends to help him - for the brief benefit of sharing his company - to prevent the escape of her rival in his affections. But the most striking image in the scene, and the most touching, is that chosen by Theseus and echoed by Hermia, in lines 76 to 79, in which the fulfilment of maternity ("the rose distilled") is contrasted with the noble sacrifice of perpetual virginity, the "rose" which "withering on the virgin thorn/Grows, lives and dies in single blessedness". To which the retort comes: "So will I grow, so live, so die", rather than yield to Demetrius' claim.
Act 2, scene 1
The short scene (1.2) in which we meet the "mechanicals" (workmen) has prepared us for the notion that the lovers will not be alone in the woods. In fact, they do not meet the workmen there (but in Theseus' house in Act 5). Both lovers and mechanicals will encounter the fairies, and it is they whom we see here for the first time.
Relationship to the play
In the play's second act, we see how Lysander's and Hermia's attempt to solve their problems (coupled with Helena's attempt to ingratiate herself with Demetrius, and Oberon's actions - in his own behalf and Helena's) leads to greater confusion, which will reach a climax in 3.2.
The scene divides effectively into two parts:
We can further divide the scene into episodes, as follows: Puck's descriptions (of Oberon's and Titania's quarrel and of himself); Oberon's confrontation with Titania, leading to his plan to take the Indian changeling from her; Demetrius' pursuit of the lovers, and his flight from Helena; Oberon's descriptions (of Titania's bower and how he and Puck are to use the magical flower juice).
Theatrical qualities and language
In this scene, the language so effectively supports the action that these must be considered together. The fairy, like all of Titania's attendants, uses short rhyming lines (spoken here, sung elsewhere) and Puck replies in rhyming couplets. This is his normal form of speech (whether in pentameters or tetrameters; the latter is more markedly rhythmic and suited to the casting of spells, though note the more musical and varied rhyme used at the end of 3.2).
Puck's speech is lively and indicates his sense of the ridiculous. It is well that the less serious passage in which he describes his pranks comes after the account of Oberon's and Titania's quarrel. This allows a sharper contrast from the levity of "a merrier hour" to the seriousness of "Ill met by moonlight". (It is only with the couplets which mark Helena's and Demetrius' exits that rhyme is resumed.) Here the blank verse has a dignity in keeping with the status of the disputants, and with the effects of their dispute. The scornfulness of the opening exchanges resembles that of the rivals in 1.1, but the rivalry is of another kind: Titania, as Oberon's consort, perhaps should (and ultimately will) give way, but she is a powerful spirit, certainly Oberon's match in verbal argument; indeed, here she has the better of the exchanges, and it is Oberon's cunning and Puck's stealth which bring about the eventual reconciliation.
The rather frenetic opening exchanges give way to fairly lengthy passages of description: of the alteration of the weather, caused by the fairies' quarrel, and of the history of the child Oberon seeks. The lack of direct action may be partly offset by the very picturesque quality of the language, while in the first passage, the Elizabethan audience would doubtless be most concerned about the loss of fertility in field and fold: town dwellers would well imagine (and some may have experienced) what happens when the supply of food from the country is short. Some gesture and/or mimicry of the "votaress" may be provided by Titania; in any case, static positions on stage in this episode could be used to show the opposition of Oberon and Titania.
Oberon's intimacy with his confidant, Puck, allows another long description of what could not possibly be depicted on stage (how Cupid's bolt missed its target and hit the Love-in-Idleness), after which Puck leaves to bring the magic flower to his master. The brief soliloquy explains to what use the flower will be put, thereby preparing us for Puck's inspired elaboration on Oberon's original plan.
More important, in a way, are the three brief words: "I am invisible". From now on either Oberon or Puck or both will be on stage for long periods of action: unseen and unheard (save when Puck mimics the young men) by the mortals they watch, they are seen and heard by the audience, whom they take into their confidence. Oberon's rôle as the unseen protector of men is as important as his solution of his own domestic problems. What he sees is this: Helena fawns on Demetrius, who spurns her. His conduct may not surprise a modern audience but is not at all gallant, in one of his social class: admittedly, he is sorely provoked, and in a situation where (he thinks) there is no third party to judge him. Desperate to rid himself of Helena, he speaks of the opportunity she has given him to ravish her; doubtless accompanying the words with menacing gestures suggestive of the deed.
Helena's response shows she has no fear of this; perhaps her actions indicate a readiness for Demetrius to ravish her, for he at once declares that he will run from her (Helena's comments on Apollo and Daphne showing how silly this reversal of rôles must appear). The whole of the interlude between Demetrius and Helena, considered as speech alone, is perfectly clear, but rather dull. It is obvious that it must be animated in some way, as by the actions of threatened violence, of pursuit and retreat, as well as by Oberon's silent watching. Oberon signals his intention to punish Demetrius, and orders Puck to effect this, but this information is subordinated to the set-piece description of Titania's bower. From a narrative point of view, this tells us where Titania is when we see her (within a few lines of this). As Shakespeare writes for a theatre in which the stage and properties are simple, the fey, magical atmosphere of the bower can only be established by such means as this word-picture, followed by Titania's speech and the fairies' lullaby in the next scene.
Act 2, scene 2
Relationship to the play
See comments above on 2.1. This scene follows without interruption of time it seems, though we have moved to the part of the wood which Oberon has just described, as we know from Titania's being there. The juice of the love-in-idleness is administered by Oberon: he suggests that Titania will be woken by some wild beast, but does not foresee the arrival of the mechanicals in 3.1. When they arrive, and perform so near to Titania, the audience may well guess what Puck will do.
It may not at once occur to us when Oberon tells Puck that he will "know the man" i.e. Demetrius "by the Athenian garments he hath on" that Lysander is somewhere in the wood and answers the description, but when Puck finds Lysander and Hermia sleeping apart, we see that Puck makes an honest mistake. Lysander's instant infatuation with Helena will be matched by that of Demetrius, to whom Oberon will give the magic juice in 3.2 leading to the confusion which Puck partly foresees (3.2, line 118). Lysander's protestation of loyalty to Hermia is about to be belied. We do not blame Lysander for the suddenness of what occurs, but in a more general sense such promises, especially when made by young people, seem very rash: who knows what may happen in future?
This is a relatively brief scene. A short interlude in which Titania is sung to sleep, allowing Oberon to give her the flower-juice (she sleeps on, he exits) leads to the arrival of the young lovers, who are lost, and lie down to sleep, allowing Puck to make his mistake; Helena, failing to catch Demetrius, sees Lysander and wakes him, with the predictable comic result, and he leaves with Helena (she has not seen Hermia, who wakes alone, having dreamt of a serpent).
Theatrical qualities and language
Whereas the previous scene, though marked by plenty of action, has space for much vivid description and poetic variety, this scene is more economical and swift-paced with lots of dramatic business done. The lullaby is beautiful and delicate but this brief interlude rapidly gives Oberon his opportunity; he tells us in a few lines what he is doing (we should remember, but if we do not, then the action alone may not be obvious) and at once leaves the stage to the lovers; there is no time even to change the scene, so Titania must remain on the stage. (She is woken neither by the young nobles, nor by the mechanicals; this is not improbable: Bottom wakes her because he sings so loudly, to keep his spirits up.)
Although the lovers exchange some pleasantries, they lie down to sleep without any more delay than is inevitably caused by Lysander's mild attempt to share Hermia's sleeping-place; the appearances, first of Puck, who gives the flower-juice to Lysander, then of Demetrius, who almost at once runs off, then of Helena mark, if anything an acceleration in the already rapid pacing of the scene. This is in keeping with the swift movement through the wood of Oberon and Puck ("Through the forest have I gone") and the breathless pursuit of Demetrius by Helena. When she declares "I am out of breath", the audience shares her sense of the need to rest awhile. While she is doing this she notices Lysander (but does not think to enquire after Hermia; Helena is, after all, an accessory to the lovers' plan!) Lysander's speech to Helena ("And run through fire I will for thy sweet sake...") is gloriously extravagant (it has a delightful counterpart in Demetrius' words to Helena on waking in 3.2). The humour depends upon Lysander's being wholly earnest, genuinely repelled by the thought of Hermia, and at once trying to rationalize his new love.
The scene has great linguistic variety: the brief blank verse instruction of Titania to her fairies is followed by the delicate rhyme of the lullaby, which is, of course, sung. The sentinel fairy's couplet is in the same metre (tetrameter) used by Oberon and shortly after by Puck. After an opening alternately-rhymed quatrain from Lysander, he and Hermia speak in couplets, as do Demetrius and Helena; and this metre, save for Puck's brief speech, is sustained for the rest of the scene. There is other evidence of verbal patterning: the fairies in the lullaby order snakes, hedgehogs and other unwelcome creatures to "come not near our Fairy Queen"; Oberon tells her to wake when some animal (he gives a list) is near, and Helena later likens herself to one of the more fearful woodland creatures on Oberon's list - "ugly as a bear".
The verbal fencing we have seen earlier from Hermia and Lysander appears again: here Lysander uses his wit at once to suggest he is innocent of any improper intent and yet also to speak seductively. (His readiness to admit he is lost may have this ulterior motive.) In the previous scene Demetrius tries to bluff Helena with threatened seduction but she calls his bluff; here Lysander probably half intends to attempt seduction but Hermia rebukes him gently. He engages in word-games with the words "one" (lines 40, 41), "heart" (46, 47) and "bosoms" (48, 49).
Hermia cuts through this very effectively with "Lysander riddles very prettily". She observes how linguistic virtuosity is used to attempt seduction. By telling him she knows what he is trying to do, she obliges him to stop! When Lysander addresses Helena in such excessive terms, the point Hermia has made is beautifully illustrated: that language may be used "prettily" but without meaning or honesty. This is shown in Lysander's repetition of the words used minutes earlier -"bosom" and "heart" - in one line (104). The repeated use of the word "reason" (114-121) also suggests one of the themes of the play. We will hear more of "reason and love" anon.
Note that while Lysander's words, taken at face value, or applied by a mature man to a rational choice of partner (Theseus, perhaps?) might be persuasive, and while, as a matter of plain fact "reason" might well show Helena to be worthier than Hermia (though not on the evidence we have so far seen) in this case we know that Lysander's comments are wholly free of reason. This is not to say that his earlier choice of Hermia is any more reasonable. In fact, the truly reasonable man will recognize (as Theseus does in 5.1, line 4 on, and as Bottom with unusual prescience states more succinctly in 3.1, 141-2) that love is a part of man's experience which is never subject to reason. Finally, note how Hermia, on waking, returns to the motif of the dangerous or vile animal, in her case by dreaming of the suitably treacherous serpent.
Act 3, scene 1
Relationship to the play
We know from the short Act 1, scene 2 that the workmen have planned to practise their play of Pyramus and Thisbe in the wood. Conveniently they come to the place just vacated by Hermia, where Titania still lies asleep. (The workmen hope that their play will be performed for Theseus, but we learn from 5.1, that there are many rival attractions: theirs will be chosen because of its amusing (contradictory) title and Philostrate's harsh comments.)
Puck, at first amused by the crudity of the acting, sees how to perfect Oberon's plan for Titania. Titania's instant infatuation with Bottom parallels that of Lysander (in the last scene) and Demetrius (in the next) with Helena. Oberon tells Puck (in 4.1) that Titania has readily given up the changeling boy to him. The sight of his queen's doting on "this hateful fool" awakens a sense of tenderness in Oberon, leading to a renewal of their love, while Bottom's strange experience leads to his puzzled soliloquy, and his seeming-miraculous return to his fellows in 4.2. Pyramus and Thisbe, as performed by the mechanicals in 5.1, is a perfect commentary on how "the course of true love" has run, hitherto, for the young lovers.
This is a fairly simple scene structurally: the workmen's rehearsal ends when Puck gives Bottom the ass's head; Bottom's efforts to keep his spirits up wake Titania, who declares her love for the bemused Bottom and commands her fairies to minister to him.
There is much to admire here, but especially
At first the scene is rather static: the workmen honestly try to solve their own "theatrical problems"; although Bottom is overbearing at times, his essential good nature and his friends' respect mean that the "players" (in contrast with the four young lovers and the fairy rulers) work harmoniously, though the result of their labours is fatuous . The acting of Pyramus and Thisbe requires movement on (and off) the stage. The "hawthorn brake" could well be off the real stage (so, ironically, the supposed "tiring house" of the workmen could be provided by the real tiring house in the theatre) as the ass's head must be placed on Bottom off stage, between lines 86 and 102 (see stage directions).
Quince's comments indicate how the play is being performed:
"Thisbe, stand forth...he goes but to see a noise that he heard, and is to come again...you must not speak that yet...Pyramus, enter".
Puck's "I'll follow you..." speech is apparently not heard by Bottom, otherwise "Why do they run away?" makes no sense. The speech is evidently to inform the audience and invites mimicry, both in sound and movement, of the animals Puck names. Titania's promise to make Bottom move "like an airy spirit" is not likely to prove true (as Oberon's and her own comments in 4.1 show). The regal, graceful movement of Titania and the delicacy of her fairies contrasts with the robustness and "mortal grossness" of Bottom. Bottom is soon at ease in his strange situation, and speaks to Titania and the fairies with the same familiarity he shows to Theseus in 5.1. For different reasons neither ruler takes offence, but Shakespeare's audience would feel a frisson of danger at the seeming impertinence.
The proper (appropriate) attitude to someone of Titania's or Theseus' status is awed reverence of the kind the duke describes in 5.1, 93-105. Only a fool would fail to see this. When the fool wears an ass's head, the impertinence seems greater. Here are some reasons why this will amuse the audience:
The rude everyday speech of the workmen, embellished by Bottom's and Quince's errors, is to be contrasted with the stilted (unnatural) attempts at eloquence in Pyramus and Thisbe (compounded by mispronunciation) and with the very real eloquence of Titania. The informality of the workmen's language is shown in their normally speaking in prose, with commonplaces such as "by'r lakin", "not a whit", "well", "nay" and "ay". Bottom also contributes "more better" and "saying thus, or to the same defect" (for "effect") while Quince manages "disfigure" (for "figure") and "to see a noise".
The simple folk-song crudely sung by Bottom is in sharp contrast to the delicate lullaby which has lulled Titania to sleep. Her reaction "What angel wakes me...?" and "Mine ear is much enamoured of thy note" is comically incongruous. There is further comic contrast between Titania's verse, rhymed after her first waking speech, and Bottom's prose: the one is eloquent, stately and (in any other context) dignified; the other homely and humble. We fear that Bottom will commit some gross breach of etiquette, but he is saved by Titania's infatuation. Titania's power is also shown in the ceremonial order of the fairies' responses to her (160) and Bottom (172).
In contrast with Lysander's implausible claim to love Helena according to reason, Bottom notes with unusual perception that "reason and love keep little company together nowadays", as if his present case were but an extreme illustration of a general truth, with which the audience concurs. His suggestion (that "honest neighbours" should "make them friends") may also hint at the activities of Theseus and Oberon in trying to resolve the problems of those made unreasonable by love. Bottom, because he is uneducated, is prone to errors in speech, especially when trying to impress. But as this and the "Bottom's dream" speech (in 4.1) show, he is capable of real intelligence, which may account for the regard in which his friends hold him. Finally note the contrast between the fey delicacy of the fairies' names and the errands they are to perform, and the practical, homely comments of Bottom who thinks of the medical use of the cobweb and the culinary merits of peas and mustard.
Act 3, scene 2
Relationship to the play
This is the longest scene in the play; indeed it is longer than any of the play's other acts. The sport Puck unintentionally causes - but greatly enjoys - reaches a climax, which might prove fatal but for his intervention; at the end of the scene he tells the audience that "all shall be well", and this leads naturally to the reconciliation of the rivals in the next act, and the celebration of the threefold nuptials in Act 5.
This is such a long scene that the structure in episodes can be hard to follow; in fact, it is not very complex if one notes that almost half of the scene is taken up with one extended episode (as long as the whole performance, in Act 5, of Pyramus and Thisbe).
The central episode here is perhaps the most amusing part of the play, but the humour is of a wholly different kind from that provided by the mechanicals. The workmen are obviously comic because of their class, their speech and their notions of acting. By contrast, the four lovers are characters of some status and dignity, whose situation in itself is very far from amusing.
In the first scene the lovers are amusing in their tendency to sensationalize their predicament, to claim for themselves a tragic grandeur. Here, however, we are entertained by the plight of each character, both because we know so much more than he or she does, and because we see, and the lovers do not, how and why their own attempts to understand their predicament are utterly mistaken. Lysander recalls that he loved Hermia but is now repelled by her, and can only see his former love as an error of judgement. Demetrius has had the same experience, but is able to revert to his even earlier claim to Helena's love. Neither man can understand why Helena disbelieves his protestations. It seems that each believes the other, however: having been bitter rivals for Hermia's hand, they now bring the same rivalry to the pursuit of Helena.
Helena loves Demetrius still, but assumes that his and Lysander's courtship of her is a cruel elaboration of Demetrius' earlier rejection; the men, though enemies, must hate her so much that they have agreed to offer ironic praise. Hermia's outrage Helena takes to be part of the game; "she is one of this confederacy". Hermia is genuinely puzzled by Lysander's sudden change of heart, but believes Helena to be at fault. An ambiguous insult ("puppet"; Helena means "counterfeit" but Hermia thinks she refers to her size) gives Hermia a reason for Lysander's inconstancy.
The scene requires energy and much action in the performance: the two men are fawning on Helena, while in part struggling with each other; yet they must keep breaking off from this to defend Helena from Hermia. Helena is trying to hold off the men, and escape Hermia's attacks. Hermia wants to assault Helena but is restrained by the men. All the while Oberon and Puck are watching, invisible to the mortals.
Eventually the desire to settle their rivalry causes the men to leave the women alone, whereupon Helena runs away from Hermia, and Puck is able to intervene. Without this, the scene could have gone on for ever, but Shakespeare has allowed time to exploit fully its comic potential. It is essential, in the acting, that the performers do not exhibit self-consciousness or any sense of irony about their ridiculous situation. The men believe as they do because they are drugged; Helena's response is quite a rational one; Hermia's less so, but she can see no other, more simple, explanation. In any case, all of them are passionate people, whose motives for being in the wood are not conducive to calm or reason; they may be tired, they are in an unfamiliar place (this is not the wood as described in 1.1) and as much in the dark metaphorically as literally. Heated and excitable behaviour is exactly what one would expect, and Puck has seen it coming. Before the men go off to fight, some violence will be threatened in gesture. As each tries to find the other, he may strike at shadows. We know they are to use swords, as Puck, in Demetrius' voice, calls out (402) that he is "drawn and ready".
Most of the scene is is rhymed verse, but in mid-speech Helena (195) switches to blank verse. As with the fairies in 2.1, this indicates a greater seriousness in the four lovers' dispute. As the threatened violence descends into farcical pursuit it is Helena again (340) who picks up the rhyme. In general the lovers use pentameters arranged as couplets, but more elaborate patterns are used for particular purposes: Lysander and Helena speak in six-line stanzas when they come on stage; with the next two lines (a couplet) they form a sonnet in effect. The same six-line stanza is used by Helena and Hermia at the end of the scene, though for Hermia the metre is subtly varied (suggesting her exhaustion) with "Never so weary, never so in woe". The fairies use both pentameter and tetrameter, and a more fluid verse form (lines varying in length) for Puck's final speech. Although the men trade insults and go off to fight, the most sharp verbal exchanges are between Helena and Hermia. Helena speaks at length of their past friendship, accusing Hermia on treachery. Helena's calling Hermia a "puppet" leads to a series of insults, mostly from the men, at the expense of Hermia's stature and dark colouring.
To this Hermia responds by calling Helena a "painted maypole". Many of the best lines in the scene are Puck's: the final speech and the earlier "Lord, what fools these mortals be" stand out. On Hermia's exit (line 344) Puck's and Oberon's exchange is used to describe the passing of the night, preparing us for the hunting in the next act. It also means that Puck must act "in haste" while the darkness he needs to mislead the men lasts.
Two other parts of the dialogue are worthy of note. Demetrius' "goddess, nymph, perfect, divine" and what follows (137ff.; quoted by Helena at 226-7) matches, if it does not surpass, Lysander's "And run through fire I will for thy sweet sake" in 2.2. Helena's "O weary night, O long and tedious night" could almost be taken from Pyramus and Thisbe (compare 5.1, 167-9). Helena (not the night) is weary (the epithet is transferred) and it is her speech here which is tedious. In the audience's view it is a good thing for the night to end now, but it has been far from tedious!
Act 4, scene 1
Relationship to the play
In this scene what Puck promises in 3.2 ("Jack shall have Jill/Nought shall go ill") comes to pass:
Only two tasks are left for the last act: these are to celebrate the threefold wedding, and for the fairies to bless the three couples with fertility, and their children, about to be conceived, with good health. In most of Shakespeare's comedies the comic resolution does not occur until the last act; here all hostilities are ended by the middle of the penultimate act.
The scene easily breaks down into a series of short episodes which have a clear narrative sequence, corresponding to the characters who are speaking. With the exception of Puck, everyone whom we know to be in the wood is on stage (somewhere)!
Theatrical qualities and language
As noted above, this scene is remarkable for the number of characters on stage, and movements must take account of this. As it is now daylight, the sleepers will be seen by anyone who comes near them. When Bottom and Titania come on stage, they must, therefore avoid the lovers. Titania's words describe her actions as does Bottom's asking Mustardseed to help Cobweb scratch his face: Titania sees the "sleek smooth head" and "fair large ears" but loves Bottom because, rather than in spite, of these.
There is continued humour in the incongruity here: offered fairy music, Bottom calls for "the tongs and the bones"; when Titania offers a dainty delicacy ("the squirrel's hoard"), Bottom seeks huge quantities of animal fodder. When Titania comes to her senses, her dancing with Oberon is very important: their movement in time to the fairy music and rhythmic verse anticipates their activity in the next act. To "rock the ground" is what they have for long failed to do (with the dire results described by Titania in 2.1).
Theseus and Hippolyta come on stage as the fairy king and queen leave it: this order is reversed in the next act; in each case we recognize a symmetry in the two pairs of rulers. The duke and his consort seek a vantage-point from which to watch the hunt. For obvious reasons the audience will not see the hounds, so a word-picture is required; once the lovers are found, the hunting can be "set aside". Theseus evidently approaches the part of the stage where the young lovers (but not Bottom) sleep. "But soft, what nymphs are these?" may be ironic (he would recognize them if he looked) but he may not have a clear view. Egeus is able to identify his own daughter, and the others, and has to state the obvious in voicing his surprise at "their being here together" (the surprise is as much at their being "together", as in the wood at all).
When the lovers wake, their words are in striking contrast to their previous waking: in the night both Lysander and Demetrius have woken instantly, filled with certain love for Helena; now both are hesitant, unsure what to say. We have not seen either of them exhibit such careful introspection nor attempt to be so conciliatory before. But Demetrius' renewal of love for Helena solves Theseus' problem. He cannot confirm Egeus' choice because Demetrius cannot (unlike Hermia) be compelled to marry against his will. So Egeus is over-ruled and the Athenian law has not been compromised. Bottom,on waking, experiences equal confusion, if not greater. Where the young lovers have no idea why their affections have altered so radically (and back, in Lysander's case), Bottom has had sight of the fairy world, but will find it difficult now to believe. He attempts to put his "dream" in words but is unequal to the task, though he hopes Peter Quince may be able to turn it into a ballad.
If the action of the scene is marked by waking, the language is marked by references to dreaming. Oberon suggests (line 70) that Bottom and the lovers will think of "this night's accidents" as "the fierce vexation of a dream", while Titania wakes believing she has had "visions". Lysander, speaking to Theseus thinks he is "half sleep, half waking", Hermia thinks she is seeing double (a faithless and a faithful Lysander?) and has already dreamed of Lysander's watching a serpent eat her heart away. Demetrius suggests they are still dreaming, but sees he must be awake when he realizes that the other three have seen and heard the same things as himself.
Bottom's soliloquy repeats the word "dream" six times and also refers to a "vision". He does not attempt to describe what he has seen, suggesting that only a "patched fool" (that is, a jester or "professional" Fool) would attempt it. (A Fool of this kind would have the learning and wit indeed to explain the dream.) Saint Paul's comment on spiritual gifts is called in evidence, but as usual Bottom assigns sense-experiences, not to the organs which experience them, but to others. He and Quince confuse sight and sound elsewhere (Quince in 3.1, 90; Bottom in 5.1, 188-9). This idea of the events in the wood as a dream, is continued in the next act: Hippolyta argues that the common elements in what the lovers say indicate that something odd occurred. Later, Puck, in speaking the epilogue will argue that the play is the audience's, as much as the performers', dream.
Act 5, scene 1
Relationship to the play
All loose ends of the plot have already been tied; what happens in the scene we already know, save for the selection of the workmen's play, which is not surprising. The play is a celebration of marriage:
The presence of the mechanicals at the wedding feast reflects the connected or organic nature of hierarchical society, and identifies the good ruler with his loyal subjects. A far more serious celebration follows: the fairies, led by their king and queen and the inevitable Puck, bring to the bedchambers the fertility, and to the children, in due course, the good health which all those in the audience would wish to enjoy.
This is remarkably simple, but is formally arranged:
The opening of the scene is quite intimate: Theseus speaks seriously to Hippolyta (he is not inhibited by the presence of so trusted a servant as Philostrate; a ruler of his standing would rarely be alone with another person). The episode is fairly static to allow the debate to be heard, but the arrival of the four young newly-weds brings Theseus to a consideration of the short-listed entertainments for his wedding-feast. He is given a written list of these, which he reads, evidently for the first-time, half aloud, half to himself. His interest in Pyramus and Thisbe alarms Philostrate, who tries to dissuade him.
When this "play" is performed, we see exaggerated histrionic gestures, and such redundant devices as actors playing the wall, moonshine and the lion. These three introduce themselves and explain what they are doing (the wall also explains his exit from the stage). Bottom and Starveling both step out of character to address their audience directly. For other clues to the nature of the action we must look to the remarks of Theseus and his guests. After the bergomask dance, and the departure of the nobles, we see the far more skilful dancing of the fairies, by means of which they enact their magic. At last, the actor playing Puck steps half out of character to address the audience; to do this he will come to the front of the stage, and end by calling for applause.
The set-piece discussion of imagination, especially of "the lunatic, the lover, and the poet" is the last in series of commentaries on reason and love which runs through the whole drama. The long speeches, in tetrameter couplets, of Oberon, Titania and Puck, perfectly fit their r"le here of beneficent and magical spirits. Throughout this play, Shakespeare has used enomous variety of verse forms and prose: almost always these perfectly fit their dramatic context, whether for carrying narrative, expressing argument, meditation on an idea, describing what we cannot see or casting a spell. We often laugh at characters, but we never laugh at the dramatist's control of his medium.
Lest we take this for granted, Pyramus and Thisbe serves as a marvellous corrective. We see here what happens when rhetorical devices and rhyme are used mechanically and without sensitivity. Quince's garbling of the punctuation makes the Prologue less intelligibl;e but no less pompous and windy. We find weak rhymes ("Thisbe/secretly"; "sinister/whisper"), excessive use of "O" (167 ff., but we have caught the lovers doing this before, if to a less degree), crude stichomythia (191-200) and tongue-tying alliteration ("Quail, crush, conclude and quell" or "Come blade my breast imbrue").
Shakespeare shows clearly in the rest of the play how to avoid lines which the actor cannot speak, unless the character is knowingly playing with sound effects) and simple inaccuracy, especially where terms have been mixed up ("I see a voice"; "Sweet Moon, I thank thee for thy sunny beams"; "These lily lips,/This cherry nose,/These yellow cowslip cheeks"). The play is not so bad that the workmen cannot plausibly take pride in it. But the educated nobles can see its faults readily. Of course, we can see skill in its composition: Shakespeare has contrived the verse form, so that errors and crudities are pointed by the rhymes, and the whole has a rollicking metrical energy which exactly matches the gusto of the inexpert but enthusiastic actors. The male and female leads have lines which are meant to give scope for the actors' great talent: there are fairly long speeches, with overwrought climaxes. We suppose that while Bottom is cast as Pyramus because his exaggerated delivery commands respect among the workmen, Flute is cast as Thisbe because he is the youngest man (his beard is only now beginning to grow).
Themes and subjects of A Midsummer Night's Dream
General comments on some of these subjects follow. A word of caution is in order first. One can readily identify possible subjects for essay questions, and you should be prepared to answer on any of these. This is not the same as writing out an essay you have prepared before the exam (always a foolish idea). Questions will be worded so as to make this difficult, and to make it obvious if you do it: examiners like organized answers but dislike the "prepared essay". Take your time to read both alternative questions carefully. It is very often the case that a question which looks hard, because of its wording, is straightforward in reality while a question which looks simple, rarely is!
Order and disorder
This is a favourite theme of the playwright. In this play the apparently anarchic tendencies of the young lovers, of the mechanicals-as-actors, and of Puck are restrained by the "sharp Athenian law" and the law of the Palace Wood, by Theseus and Oberon, and their respective consorts. This tension within the world of the play is matched in its construction: in performance it can at times seem riotous and out of control, and yet the structure of the play shows a clear interest in symmetry and patterning.
Confronted by the "sharp" law of Athens, and not wishing to obey it, Lysander thinks of escape. But he has no idea that the wood, which he sees merely as a rendezvous before he and Hermia fly to his aunt, has its own law and ruler. As Theseus is compromised by his own law, so is Oberon. Theseus wishes to overrule Egeus, but knows that his own authority derives from the law, that this cannot be set aside when it does not suit the ruler's wishes. He does discover a merciful provision of the law which Egeus has overlooked (for Hermia to choose "the livery of a nun") but hopes to persuade Demetrius to relinquish his claim, insisting that Hermia take time before choosing her fate. The lovers' difficulties are made clear by the law of Athens, but arise from their own passions: thus, when they enter the woods, they take their problems with them. Oberon is compromised because his quarrel with Titania has caused him and her to neglect their duties: Oberon, who should rule firmly over the entire fairy kingdom cannot rule in his own domestic arrangements. We see how each ruler, in turn, resolves this problem, without further breaking of his law.
In the love relationships of Theseus and Hippolyta, of Oberon and Titania and of the two pairs of young lovers, we see love which, in a manner appropriate to the status and character of the lovers, is idealized eventually. The duke and his consort have had their quarrel before the action of the play begins, but Shakespeare's choice of mythical ruler means the audience well knows the "sword" and "injuries" referred to in 1.2; we see the resolution of the fairies' quarrel and that of the lovers during the play, and all is happy at its end. But whereas the rulers resolve their own problems, as befits their maturity and status, the young lovers are not able to do so, and this task is shared by Oberon and Theseus. Oberon orders Puck to keep Lysander and Demetrius from harming each other, and Theseus confirms their wishes as he overbears Egeus' will. He is not now breaking his own law, because Demetrius cannot be compelled to marry against his will.
A ridiculous parallel case of young lovers so subject to passion that, after disobeying their parents' law, they take their own lives, is provided by Pyramus and Thisbe. Lysander and Demetrius laugh at the mechanicals' exaggerated portrayal of these unfortunates, but the audience has seen the same excessive passion in earnest from these two.
If Lysander breaks - or evades - the Athenian law knowingly, then the mechanicals break the law of the wood unwittingly. Puck's conversation with the first fairy in 2.1, makes clear that the wood is where Oberon and Titania keep their court, though they travel further afield. (Oberon, according to Titania, has come "from the farthest steep of India" because of the marriage of his favourite to Theseus, while the Fairy Queen has also been in India with the mother of her changeling.)
When he finds the workmen rehearsing, Puck notes the impertinence of these "hempen homespuns" being so near the bower of the Fairy Queen. And when we see that bower, we see Titania with her attendant fairies, we hear the ceremonial etiquette of their speaking in turn, even to "hail" the ass-headed Bottom. The incursion of these mortals into the fairies' domain may be somewhat of an impertinence, but Oberon lets there be no doubt that he is ruler here. The audience, taken into his and Puck's confidence, may see the mortals in the wood as "fools", subject to the power of the unseen spirits; but we also see how that power is exercised for the good of the uninvited guests. Bottom, in the arms of Titania, would seem to the Elizabethan audience to be playing with fire; and yet no harm comes to him.
If the principal characters in the play serve to subvert or to restore order, how do we categorize Puck? By his own admission he is the most successful of all practical jokers. And his giving Bottom the ass's head or his delight on discovering the results of administering the juice of love-in-idleness to the wrong person ("this their jangling I esteem a sport") suggest that he is another representative of anarchy. But charged with a serious duty, he is perfectly obedient ("I go, I go, look how I go") and he is taken into his master's confidence. It is Puck who perfectly explains how order is to be restored to the young lovers' confused relations:
"Jack shall have Jill/Naught shall go ill/The man shall have his mare again and all shall be well".
It is Puck who keeps the young men from harming each other, and it is Puck, with his broom, who leads the fairies in their blessing of Theseus' house in the final episode of Act 5.
Though the hard work of restoring harmony to his own relations with Titania, and among the young lovers is principally done by Oberon and Puck, Theseus also has a part to play. In the opening scene, he is clearly trying to calm heated passions and buy time for Hermia. He does not know how or why the four lovers are "fortunately met", but he acts decisively in over-bearing Egeus' will but compensates him for any loss of face with the honour of a joint wedding ceremony. In Act 5, we see how his own great happiness makes the Duke more, not less, eager to promote the happiness of the young lovers ("Joy, gentle friends, joy and fresh days of love/ Accompany your hearts") and to show considerate approval of the efforts of the amateur performers of Pyramus and Thisbe.
We do not see the threat to Athenian order posed by the incursion of the Amazons, but we do see, and enjoy with Puck, the confusion of the lovers and others in the wood, in the play's middle scenes. Though Puck and Oberon will eventually succeed, their first efforts to help Helena lead to an aggravation of the lovers' plight: Shakespeare contrives that each of the four, by the end of 3.2 will have a different perception (in every case wrong) of his or her situation.
The serious disorder brought about in the natural world by the fairies' quarrel cannot be shown directly, but is graphically described by Titania; what can be shown is the incongruous pairing of the Fairy Queen and ass-headed Bottom. A different kind of chaos is seen in the attempts of the mechanicals to perform a play. We actually see casting, rehearsal, revision of the text and eventual performance.
The ineptitude of the actors counterpoints the virtuosity of Shakespeare's control of the play proper. This is shown both on the small and the large scale. The linguistic variety of the play (see below) and the control of the four narrative strands are such that the play has enjoyed great success in performance. In the wood, Shakespeare will leave a group of characters alone for as long as he needs to, but we never lose touch with their story. It is typical of Shakespeare that the mortals we see first in the wood are Demetrius and Helena; at once the playwright shows us the cause of Demetrius' rejection of Helena and lets us know that the other pair are also in the wood. We do not need to see Lysander and Hermia before they have lost their way, but we are ready for Puck's mistake as he seeks one in "Athenian garments".
Love and marriage
There is something (perhaps not much) to be said in defence of the passionate love of young people, and Shakespeare has said it in Romeo and Juliet. The belief that any action can be excused if one follows one's feelings is a sentimental notion which gained widespread currency in the 19th century, but is not much anticipated or endorsed by Shakespeare. Thus, Theseus' suggestion in 1.1, that Hermia marry a man she does not love rather than "live a barren sister" all her life will be repellent to parts of the modern audience but would seem perfectly sensible to contemporaries.
Shakespeare writes for a public who see marriage unsentimentally. At all levels of society, from king to commoner, marriage is entered into for commercial and dynastic reasons. People marry to increase their property and to secure its inheritance. Wise parents, who may dispose of their children in marriage, will of course try to avoid matches which the contracting parties find intolerable, but there are limits to this. On the other hand, children have a duty of obedience. And the husband Egeus proposes for Hermia is by no means unattractive; his chief defect is that he is not Lysander, whom Hermia loves, perhaps intemperately.
The play shows how the ideal relationship is that in which the affections and the reasonable mind are both in harmony. At the start of the play, both Demetrius and Helena are clearly at fault. Demetrius has allowed his love for Helena to abate; she, by fawning on him, is guilty of doting, which exacerbates his dislike. An honourable man would stand by his promise and try to re-discover his love for Helena, and it is this which draws Lysander's taunt that Demetrius is "spotted and inconstant". In time, perhaps, Demetrius might reconsider Helena's merits, but in the brief time allowed by Theseus' ultimatum to Hermia, it will require the intervention of Oberon's magic, to restore this relationship.
Is Demetrius' love for Helena at the end of the play still being artificially stimulated by the love-in-idleness? Although "Dian's bud" has been used as an antidote, we do not know that the magic lasts for ever. The tone of Demetrius' defence, in 5.1, before Theseus of his love for Helena, in striking contrast with his earlier declaration of love to her ("Goddess, nymph, divine") shows that his love is no longer due to the magic flower, but to a new insight into her merits; above all, his love for Hermia, clearly a youthful infatuation, has been dispelled. Likening this to "an idle gaud" doted upon "in childhood", Demetrius suggests that his rediscovered love is of a mature kind, and so it appears to the audience.
Although Hermia can be stubborn and fierce, she seems serious in her love for Lysander. One reason for Theseus' description of the nun's lonely calling is to test just this. (The question of course assumes that maternity is a state highly desired by any woman - which very much does reflect Elizabethan attitudes.) The answer, in which Hermia echoes the exact terms of Theseus' metaphor of the "rose distill'd" and the single rose, indicates Hermia's seriousness of purpose. This is confirmed by her insistence, in the wood, that Lysander does not compromise her by lying too near. Lysander, while feeling more amorous than this, is ready to do Hermia's bidding.
Although their love seems, therefore, far more reasonable than Helena's doting and Demetrius's infatuation, these two lovers are at fault for taking themselves too seriously. When Lysander pompously generalizes from their experience and pontificates about "the course of true love", Hermia responds in kind. And when Lysander suggests flight from Athens, she agrees readily. Lysander, indeed, seems very sure of himself in the opening scene: he has Hermia's love, he scorns his rival, he strikes a tragic pose as he duets with Hermia, he has a brilliant plan, and he is so cocksure he patronizingly tells Helena how he and Hermia are about to solve her problems.
In the next act we see the sequel to this: Lysander does not know his way in the wood, his confident promise of loyalty to Hermia is forgotten in moments, under the influence of fairy magic. And in Act 3 he almost begins a fatal duel with Demetrius, still his rival, both having easily transferred their love to Helena.
The love of Oberon and Titania is out of harmony at the start of Act 2. We can see why both should be so eager to have the Indian changeling, but wonder that they cannot compromise. (It appears that these spirits cannot have children of their own, and so rely on the offspring of human fertility, which they so dutifully promote. This child has been "stolen from an Indian king", but Titania details the circumstances mitigating the theft.) Oberon recognizes his fault, and sets out, with Puck's help, to rectify it. He must assert his authority over his consort, while being reconciled to her, in order that they both can fulfil their real duty. This we discover from Titania's long speech (2.1, 81- 117), learning also of how it has been neglected. Fertility in field and fold has suffered, and Titania admits her and Oberon's blame for this.
Shakespeare shows the comic consequences of this disharmony in several ways: we have the escalating confusion which besets the four young lovers until Puck parts them and promises that "all shall be well"; we have the exquisite sight of the Fairy Queen, who has refused her lord's entreaty, doting on a workman with an ass's head and appetite; and, finally, we have the "lamentable comedy" of Pyramus and Thisbe, though the tragic original is somewhat obscured in the acting.
But right through the play runs the concern that love shall lead to marriage, which shall lead to the begetting of children. Is love, even the most powerful, sufficient to justify "chanting faint hymns to the cold, fruitless moon?" asks Theseus in the first scene, which opens with his complaint to Hippolyta (who is more patient) about how long their wedding seems in coming. At the end of Act 3, Puck insists that "Jack shall have Jill". When Oberon and Titania are "new in amity" at once they dance to bring joy and fecundity back to the natural world, all that Titania has described as missing from it through her quarrel with Oberon.
And the last action of the play is not Theseus' retiring to bed because " 'tis almost fairy time", but the appearance of Puck, followed by his king and queen: it really is "fairy time". In a long incantatory speech which begins and ends with "break of day" (until when the fairies will be at work) Oberon explains how he and Titania are to ensure conception and healthy offspring to Hippolyta, while the other fairies will do the same in "each several chamber".
Finally, it should be noted that love is the subject of some debate in the play, though the action may indicate the view we are finally to take. We should consider, as well as the overwrought statements of Hermia and Lysander in 1.1, the soliloquy of Helena which concludes this scene, and Theseus's long speech to Hippolyta at the start of Act 5. Helena makes the contrast between looking "with the eyes" (seeing things as they really are) and "love" which "looks...with the mind" (that is, distorts our perception).
There is, in cold logic, no reason why Hermia should prefer Lysander to Demetrius; the unreasonableness of love is spectacularly shown by the doting of Titania on the grotesque Bottom, but, in a less degree all love is of this nature. Theseus speaks of the power of the human imagination generally; he instances lovers, with madmen and poets, as those in whom the imagination is most rampant, but he reiterates Helena's observation that lovers see what is not really there ("Helen's beauty in a brow of Egypt"). And in the middle of the play it is Bottom, who, for all his shortcomings as a player, has a more shrewd view than anyone else on stage of the relations of "reason and love" (they have no relation, for the most part). Love makes us foolish, and Puck's "Lord, what fools these mortals be" encourages us to laugh at the foolish behaviour of the young lovers and Bottom in the wood. But this folly is near-universal; in laughing at Lysander or Helena we laugh at ourselves.
Appearance and reality - dreams and imagination
A recurring interest for Shakespeare is the difference between what is and what seems. Confusion of identity, even between the sexes, disguises and hypocrisy are examined elsewhere. In this play, the identity of things may be confused for different reasons. One source of confusion is the human imagination. Lovers, madmen and poets have in common a faculty of imagination which (depending where one stands) transfigures or distorts what is perceived. The lover "sees Helen's beauty in a brow of Egypt", the madmen sees imaginary devils, while the poet gives vivid expression to airy nothing".
In this play, there are further reasons for confusion, beyond the effect of love (noted by Helena and Theseus). Mortals venture into unfamiliar territory (the wood), in moonlight or complete darkness, and two of them have their eyes anointed with a drug which alters their perception. These see in Helena what is not really there. At the same time they fail to see the fairy world which is all around them. The audience knows, but they do not, of Puck's mischief and Oberon's guardianship. The cause of the bad weather and poor harvests is also revealed to us but not to the mortals, as is the assurance that this is to be remedied. Bottom, admittedly, is allowed a glimpse of Titania's bower and train. But his recollection is hazy (a legacy of his ass's head?) and he supposes that what he recalls is a dream. His awkward confusion of the senses as he tries to quote St. Paul exquisitely correspond to the confusion he has experienced in the wood. There are frequent references by the young lovers to finding and losing their partners, and Hermia wakes from an equivocal dream of a serpent to find herself deserted.
It is clear from her reference to his "fair large ears" that Titania can see Bottom's transformation, but loves him nonetheless. Indeed, the ears and Bottom's singing bring compliments from Titania. Freed from the influence of the love-in-idleness, she recalls the love and its object in terms of the logic of dream or vision. Exactly the same sight now prompts her remark that her eyes "do hate his visage". In the same way, the transformed Bottom has not only the appearance but also the appetite of an ass, requesting "oats" and "dried peas", in preference to the fairy delicacies offered him. At the end of the play, Theseus' observation " 'tis almost fairy time" seems merely to be a conventional way of referring to midnight. He is the beneficiary of the fairies' activity but they are unseen by the mortals they serve.
While the senses of the young lovers, of Bottom and even of Titania are confused by magic, moonlight or their own imagining, one group of characters has the opposite problem. The particular illusion that is theatre, of which this play is a virtuoso example, is too much for the mechanicals. There is no reason to suppose that they are not good at their crafts (Bottom may well be a master weaver) but they have "never labour'd in their minds till now". They confront very real problems of what to show (everything, they suppose) and what to omit and come up with practical but implausible solutions.
There are topical references here: at a baptismal feast in the Scottish court in 1594 a chariot was drawn by a "blackamoor" rather than a lion, as the latter, by candlelight might have been too fearful, while Shakespeare himself had introduced a wall (of Capulet's orchard, scaled by Romeo) in Romeo and Juliet. And in this play, there are constant indications of how little or much light there is. The mechanicals' devices constantly interfere with any tendency to create theatrical illusion, largely because they are always so conspicuous. When Puck speaks aloud, clearly addressing the audience, the illusion of the play is sustained (save in his very last speech, where the breaking of illusion is intended). But when Bottom addresses his audience, in response to Theseus' jest that the wall "being sensible, should curse again", the opposite effect is created. Likewise, the mechanical metre and obvious rhyme of Pyramus and Thisbe draw attention to the performance and detract from the narrative, which, in any case is as simple as the prologue which does not at all summarize it.
From Pyramus and Thisbe we can return to the play in which it is set. Here, Shakespeare invents two worlds, with suitable inhabitants, and brings them into contact in various interesting ways. He presents plausibly and without embarrassment the fairy king and queen, a notable woodland spirit and a wealth of minor fairies. The natural world is imaginatively depicted, given "a local habitation and a name": we are told of the foul weather, in very concrete detail: "the nine-men's-morris is fill'd up with mud", for example; we learn of "the farthest steep of India", of Oberon's various favourites.
Against the beautiful lyric and exotic account of the changeling's pregnant mother we have the homely jollity of Puck's pranks on the "fat and bean-fed horse" or "wisest aunt". Oberon gives us many set-piece descriptions: of the "bank whereon the wild thyme blows", of the "fair vestal" whom Cupid's bolt failed to hit, and of Titania's "seeking sweet favours for this hateful fool" (Bottom), among others. Here Shakespeare shows us what can be done "in this kind", lest the failure of Pyramus and Thisbe lead us to the conclusion that the theatre can only depict what can literally be brought on stage. In watching a play filled with references to moonlight, darkness, day-break we do well to recall that it was first performed in open-air theatres in daylight!
Athens, the wood and the moon
The two locations of the play are essential to the development of the plot, although their presentation relies wholly on the characters we meet there, their adventures and their descriptions of these places. Athens is not an accidental choice of location: although much of the detail of the play is quintessentially English, the classical setting enables Shakespeare to introduce the notable lawgiver, who has had his own problems in love; it makes plausible the reference to the severe law, and it allows Oberon to refer seriously to Cupid and Diana without the play's seeming blasphemous.
Theseus is an enlightened ruler, notable for his wise judgement but there is a limit to his abilities: the problem Egeus gives him seems incapable of solution, so he tries to buy time and work on Egeus and Demetrius. But there seems little hope that the "harsh Athenian law" will produce a solution acceptable to all parties.
The wood is mentioned first by Lysander, who has been there with Hermia and Helena on May Day, and in the following scene by Bottom. Neither seems to have any inkling of what they may meet there. The wood may be unremarkable in the daytime but at night it is a place of danger and confusion. The young lovers experience the confusion but do not know its cause. The mechanicals go to the Palace Wood because they wish to rehearse unseen, little knowing that the wood is full of spirits (not to mention the four young lovers).
Lysander's literal losing of his way anticipates his metaphorical losing of his way, in pursuing the wrong woman. Demetrius speaks to Helena in a manner no gentleman would care to use in Athens, where his conduct might be remarked. Yet he is overheard not by any of his social peers, but by the Fairy King who is as critical of Demetrius' conduct as any in the audience. In this wood the actions of men are observed by greater powers who give then their deserts. Thus Bottom, encroaching on the bower of the Fairy Queen is the victim of Puck's mischief, though he suffers less from the indignity than his terrified fellows.
The wood is also a place of wild beasts. When Titania sleeps the fairies cast a spell and one stands as sentinel to keep away snakes, hedgehogs, spiders, beetles and other creatures thought harmful or unpleasant. There may even be lions and wolves, described by Puck in 5.1, as he enters Theseus' house, which shall not be disturbed by unwanted creatures; there are ounce, cat, bear, pard and boar, any of which Titania may see on waking, and love. Even when these creatures are absent, Puck (3.2 105 - 110) may imitate them. Lysander, perhaps drawing inspiration from the woodland beasts likens Hermia both to a cat and to a serpent (3.2 260 -261).
There is, however, a more pleasant quality of the wood. Titania's bower is described by Oberon as a place of great beauty and delight to the senses. Titania, in love with Bottom, orders her fairies to provide him with delightful pleasures. Though his appetite is more for "a peck of provender" or "a bottle of hay" he is happy to send Cobweb in search of a bee's honey-sac.
On this night, the wood is unusually dark. The moon has waned almost completely, as Theseus tells us in the play's opening lines; what light there is comes from the "starry welkin", though even this is clouded by Puck's "drooping fog as black as Acheron" at the end of Act 3. Lysander seems less aware than Theseus of the moon's phases as he speaks of "Phoebe" (the moon) seeing "her silver visage" reflected in "the watery glass" of a pool. Hippolyta, imagining the new moon as a "silver bow" is nearer the mark. These indications of the state of the moon tell us of the literal darkness in which the mortals in the wood move (they are metaphorically in the dark, too).
The play is filled with references to the moon.
From all this we understand that the moon really moves through the night sky, as the mortals are in the wood; that men and women are aware of the phases of the moon, which measures their time; that the moon, conventionally represented as the goddess Diana, is associated with chastity.
Pyramus and Thisbe are like Oberon and Titania in that they meet by moonlight, but this troubles the mechanicals greatly. Their solution, not shared by Shakespeare, is for Starveling "to disfigure...the person of moonshine" (Bottom's idea, of leaving the casement open, though not guaranteeing light in the right place, might be less intrusive!) And the moon for the workmen is not the classical Diana, but the homely English nursery-rhyme figure of the man in the moon, with traditional dog and thorn-bush. Even by the workmen's own strange standards the device is flawed, since Thisbe is left to find the dead Pyramus by (imagined) "starlight". The performance of Starveling also gives Theseus and Hippolyta the chance to crack some very topical jokes about changing and waning.
The play opens in Athens. We see how the young lovers and the mechanicals leave (for different reasons) this known and familiar place and enter the wood. This is the proper domain of the fairies, and no place for men, who enter at their peril. In the symmetry of the play, we see this process reversed in Act 5. Here the fairies come into Athens into the home of Theseus. But they are in no danger, not even of discovery. While they can promote the general fertility of the natural world in the wood, the importance of Theseus and Hippolyta requires a more direct overseeing of the conception of their heir.
Where Shakespeare's tragedies and, often, his histories will tell the story, chiefly, of a single principal character, this is rarely the case with his comedies (though the late comedy, The Tempest, is dominated by the figure of Prospero). The comedies are more social and deal with pairs or groups of characters. In the case of this play, the principal pairs of groups are, at first, introduced severally. Though, one group may interact with another (as when Puck anoints Lysander's eyes, or Titania is in love with Bottom) they retain separate identities. However, Shakespeare contrives that every character in the cast, save Egeus (unless he is one of the "Lords" who enter with Theseus) shall appear in the last act/scene of the play.
While each of the groups is separate, there are symmetries which appear among them: Theseus and Oberon (and, in a way, Bottom) are rulers and figures of authority in their proper spheres. Hippolyta and Titania are consorts who defy their lords, but ultimately submit to their lordship. Often one pair is to be contrasted with another: the well-matched lovers Lysander and Hermia contrast with the ill-matched Demetrius and Helena (they resemble Pyramus and Thisbe). Even Puck has his human counterpart in Philostrate. The serious strife of the young nobles contrasts with the good fellowship of the mechanicals while it resembles the contention of the fairy rulers. Complete depiction of a complex character (as in Hamlet) is not attempted here, and would be wholly out of place. This is not a fault but reflects the different concern here of the playwright. But we do find very economical portrayal of strong and vivid characters, in Puck, Bottom, Oberon, Titania, Theseus, Helena and Hermia. Of these, the first two stand out as among the greatest of Shakespeare's creations.
Puck first appears at the start of Act 2, and is rarely off the stage from this point. He is essential to the narrative: he carries out his master's orders obediently (though delighting in mistakes, as when he anoints the wrong Athenian's eyes), yet is also given licence to act of his own volition (his giving the ass's head to Bottom, and its results are said by Oberon to be "better than" he "could devise"). But Puck's actions are hard to separate from the kind of person he is. We first learn this from a fairy and then from Puck himself, while their words are soon illustrated by Puck's deeds. But the mischief is tempered by great benevolence to man, and a concern, ultimately, that "all shall be well". Puck clearly lives up to his other name of "Goodfellow".
In studying Puck's contribution to the drama, you should consider the general account of his mischief at the start of Act 2, his and Oberon's dealings with the young lovers and Bottom in the woods, and his part in the blessing of the three couples at the end of Act 5. In all of these Puck is at pains to explain to the audience what he is doing, and to take the spectator into his confidence. He can be seen as a superior counterpart to Philostrate, a master of revels in the fairy world. Puck:
He admits to levity (2.1, 42 ff.) but he takes his duties seriously, as is best seen at the end of Act 3: here Lysander and Demetrius are so bitter in their rivalry over Helena, that they mean to fight to the death, while Hermia, too, threatens her rival with bodily harm. We have seen more than enough of this strife, and Puck's "I will lead them up and down" is welcome. The scene has proceeded from confusion, to accusation, abuse and threats, in perhaps the longest episode in the play: swiftly, Puck resolves the threatened danger.
His skill in mimicry and his magical power to "overcast the night" enable him to separate the weary rivals. That he brings them almost together is necessary for the sequel in the next act, but also may symbolize the reconciliation Puck describes in the simple but beautiful rhyme with which the act ends. In this, Puck explains to the sleeping Lysander what will be the effect of the juice of Dian's bud, as he places this in the lover's eyes, and generally how "all shall be well". This perfectly prepares us for the "gentle concord in the world" in Act 4.
Theseus and Oberon
The symmetry in the playwright's conception of these two is often, in performance, reflected by the casting of the same actor in both rôles. Each is the ruler in his proper sphere: Theseus, as many in the audience will know, is noted for being a wise ruler and lawgiver. In the play, his ability to rule is challenged by the perversity of his subjects. We see challenges to Oberon's control of the fairy world, too. Theseus has been, and Oberon is, at odds with his partner: Theseus's war with the Amazons is referred to, but briefly, as most of the audience can be supposed to know this story: "I wooed thee with my sword/And won thy love, doing thee injury". Oberon's quarrel with Titania is, of course, Shakespeare's invention, and its origin and consequences are far more fully presented.
The young lovers give Theseus a problem: he first makes sure that Hermia's love for Lysander is so strong as to justify her readiness to "live a barren sister" all her life, postpones judgement, to buy time, and notes his own failure ("being over-full of self-affairs") to remonstrate with Demetrius for his dropping of Helena. It is the treatment of Helena which angers Oberon: Titania has already described his gallantry towards mortal women, and he is disgusted by the treatment of the "sweet Athenian lady" at the hands of this "disdainful youth". The happy resolution of the lovers' plight is the result both of Oberon's and of Theseus's interventions. Theseus cannot at once find a solution but delays; Oberon does not at first restore Demetrius's love. But the "gentle concord" in Act 4 does arise from Oberon's and Puck's work, while Theseus sustains the concord in overbearing Egeus's will, while placating him (and compensating for any loss of face) by allowing his daughter the honour of sharing in the ruler's nuptial festivities.
Oberon, finally, brings the blessings of health and fertility to the marriage-beds of the lovers. Both Oberon and Theseus can command great power, but each is capable of sensitivity. Theseus has already defeated his warrior bride, while Oberon's confrontation with Titania in 2.1, is as violent verbally and psychologically as anything in the tragedies, his anti-greeting ("Ill met by moonlight...") almost a snarl. But his concern for the lovers, and his pity for the ridiculous dotage of Titania show how he is capable of gentler feeling. Theseus' obvious sympathy for Hermia in 1.1, has a parallel in his concern not to belittle the efforts of the mechanicals to celebrate his wedding: "The best in this kind are but shadows, and the worst are no worse, if imagination amend them". His prose speaking here might indicate a concern that the workmen should understand him, to lessen their sense of awe. In Theseus, Shakespeare brings dignity and humanity to the familiar mythical hero; in Oberon, he embodies the most benign qualities of Elizabethan woodland sprites in a fairy king more vivid, concrete and passionate than any original of Oberon on whom he may have based his depiction.
The young lovers
For the proper view of their plight we should look to other characters in the play. We are invited to sympathize with their situation, but to see as rather ridiculous the posturing to which it leads. This is evident in their language which is often highly formal in use of rhetorical devices, and in Lysander's and Hermia's generalizing of "the course of true love" (the "reasons" they give why love does not "run smooth" clearly do not refer to their own particular problems: they are not "different in blood", nor mismatched "in respect of years"). Pyramus and Thisbe is not only Shakespeare's parody of the work of other playwrights but also a mock-tragic illustration of Lysander's famous remark. This is evident in a number of similarities to the scenes in the Dream in which the young lovers are present.
Before the play begins, and at its end, as Demetrius loves Helena, we see two happy couples; but Demetrius' loss of love for Helena (arising from, or leading to, his infatuation with Hermia) disturbs the equilibrium. That Demetrius really does re-discover his love for Helena in the wood (as opposed to continuing merely in a dotage induced by the juice of love-in-idleness) is clear from his speech on waking. Unlike his "goddess, nymph, divine" outburst, this defence of his love and repentance for his infatuation with Hermia (likened to a sickness) is measured and persuasive. The critic who objects to the absence of any stage direction for the giving to Demetrius of Dian's bud, the antidote to Cupid's flower, can be answered thus: in a performance, the audience is not likely to detect the omission; we may suppose the effects of the flower to wear off over time, but Demetrius' love does not; in any case, Puck could "apply" the "remedy" to the eyes of each "gentle lover", at the end of Act 3, if the director is troubled by this seeming discrepancy. But the best reason is that Demetrius's profession of his new-found love makes the antidote or its absence redundant in his case.
Early in the play we laugh at what the young lovers say. Lysander is aware of his and Hermia's sufferings, but to pontificate about "the course of true love" generally, to say it "never did run smooth", is risible. The alternate lines in which Lysander proposes a reason why love does not "run smooth", while Hermia comments on his statement, invite ridicule, as his "or" (leading to another reason) is followed by her "O", bewailing the cause of the lovers' suffering. In the same scene, we note how the same device (stychomythia) is used rather differently, as Hermia and Helena expound Demetrius' preferences: "I frown upon him, yet he loves me still"/"O that your frowns would teach my smiles such skill!". Here the use of similar vocabulary with opposite meaning is made emphatic by the rhyming couplet.
When Helena soliloquizes about love, at the end of the scene, she speaks wisely, in her general account, but her inability to be wise in her own situation is comic. Disclosing her rival's flight to Demetrius, to enjoy his company briefly, seems perverse, but is wholly plausible: young people in love often do silly things. In the wood, we see the likely outcome of Oberon's orders to Puck, as we know that a man in "Athenian garments" could be Lysander, who, according to Demetrius and Helena, is already in the wood. But the multiple confusion caused by the love-in-idleness among the four lovers is richly comic in its variety. Each has a different understanding of the situation.
The characters have no proper understanding of what they feel; the whole episode is a nightmare magnification of the madness love ordinarily can lead to. And when the men "seek a place to fight", they are serious in their purpose. But the audience is assured by Oberon's vigilance and Puck's activity that "all shall be well". And the proper response to them is to agree with Puck: "Lord, what fools these mortals be". The actors should play the parts without any sense of irony, however.
For a more sympathetic view of the lovers, we should consider Theseus's attempt (1.1) to show Hermia how much she would lose, to "endure the livery of a nun". The appeals to "desire", "youth" and "blood" show his awareness of the sexual desire of a young woman, while his comparison of the "rose distill'd" to that on the "virgin thorn" delicately advertises the attraction of maternity. Hermia's reply shows her understanding of his reason, and her determination.
In the duke's presence she is shown at her best; when he leaves, her conversation with Lysander is touching initially, as they comfort each other, but soon becomes overwrought, exaggerating their passion. In Act 4, suddenly with no cause for further enmity, there is no hint of a grudge on the part of any; each has, impossibly, it seems, the prospect of immediate marriage to the preferred partner, while the feuding of the previous night is remembered but, in its many confusions (changes of desire, seeming betrayals, quarrels, voices from nowhere) thought of as a dream. This view is anticipated by the pair of six-line stanzas spoken by Helena and Hermia at the end of Act 3. Each is a moving expression of despair and resignation (though Helena's "O weary night, O long and tedious night" has a hint of Pyramus's "O grim-looked night, O night with hue so black!" about it. If Puck hints at how we are to see the lovers in the wood, Theseus is able, in the final act, to articulate our happiness at the comic resolution: "Joy, gentle friends, joy and fresh days of love/Accompany your hearts", while we inwardly endorse the fairies' blessing and Oberon's promise that the lovers' "issue" shall "ever...be fortunate", the couples "ever true in loving". We rejoice to see Lysander's pessimistic utterance contradicted.
Bottom is frequently foolish but he is not a fool. His exuberance and energy are allied to practicality and resourcefulness, with an alarming lack of self-consciousness. He, at any rate, is not at all tongue-tied before the duke, as Theseus has known others to be. We do laugh at Bottom in many situations, but should note that these are situations in which any man might seem ridiculous: amateur theatricals are almost a byword for unintended comedy, whether in planning (1.2) rehearsal (3.1) or performance (5.1); any artisan afflicted with an ass's head and appetites, and beloved of the fairy queen would have difficulty retaining his dignity.
It is true that Bottom by his ambitious speech, his ignorance of music and poetry, and his homely outlook is even more comic than most men in these situations, however. Bottom is, we presume, competent at his craft, and is respected by his fellows. In their view only Bottom can carry off the demanding r"le of Pyramus. They admire his presence, panache and vocal power. Theseus's comment on his "passion" may suggest some exaggeration in the playing, and this would be in keeping with Bottom's character, but we need not suppose the lines are badly-spoken, so much as badly-written. "He that writ it" attracts the most censure from Theseus. It is difficult to see how, given these lines, Bottom could be anything but comic in the performance of the play. And Shakespeare has already indicated that "hard-handed men" who have "never laboured in their minds till now" cannot be expected to perform competently. Theatre should be left to professionals (Bottom would not expect an actor to be able to weave).
Leaving aside, if we may, the quality of Pyramus and Thisbe, we should note how it is Bottom who is the driving force behind the performance, though Quince would seem in 1.2, to be the director (and possibly the writer; in 4.1, Bottom states that he will ask Quince to write the ballad of his dream, while in 3.1, he asks Quince to write the Prologue). It is Bottom who prompts most of the debate about the practical difficulties of the lion, the wall and the moonlight.
When his friends run away, Bottom, though clearly afraid, remains in the wood. He is not subdued by his encounter with the powerful fairy queen and her servants. When he wakes in the morning, he is thinking of his lines in Pyramus and Thisbe, and he is not awed even by the great duke.
Bottom is also capable of great wisdom. His comment to Titania about "reason and love" is the clearest articulation in the play of this central truth. His soliloquy on waking in the wood, though marked by his usual verbal confusion is, perhaps because of this, almost lyrical in articulating what defies the language of the ordinary man (Lysander, in this scene, is far less eloquent; in the next scene, Theseus fails to penetrate the mystery).
The mixing up of the senses ("The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen...") is of course not intended, but reflects the confusion of the night's events.
This particular fault of speech is one which afflicts Bottom elsewhere ("I see a voice"; but it is possible that the fault is the writer's; in the rehearsal, Quince tells Flute that Pyramus "goes but to see a noise". Against this, in the rehearsal the line appears as "But hark, a voice!") Flute's error in rehearsal is repeated by Bottom (and Flute) in the performance as Pyramus invites Thisbe to meet him "at Ninny's tomb". Bottom's speech is frequently imprecise: "generally, man by man", "grow to a point" and "most obscenely and courageously" (presumably a compound of "obscurely" and "unseen", both of which fit the implied sense).
Because Bottom is a workman, Puck has no compunction about fixing an ass's head on him (he must treat the lovers, as nobles, more respectfully). Bottom's usual simple tastes (folk-song, the tongs and bones) are mixed with curious new-found appetites for animal fodder "a bottle of hay" or "a peck of provender". He is aware how hairy he is, and Titania has told him of his "fair large ears", yet he does not acknowledge the transformation he has endured, nor worry about it. The humour here lies not only in the mixture of Bottom's personality and the ass characteristics, but in the incongruity of this "mortal grossness", the grotesque, earthy and plain-speaking Bottom, and the beautiful, airy, eloquent and possibly dangerous fairy queen. The "bank whereon the wild thyme blows" and the beautiful fairy song "Philomel with lullaby", as well as the dainty morsels offered by Titania's servants - it is difficult to imagine a more alien creature to all this, than Bottom. We laugh at his ineptitude, at the incongruity of the situation, at the blatant illustration of the gulf between "reason and love"; we are disturbed by the indignity Titania undergoes, alarmed by the danger Bottom may be in, but reassured by his taking it in his stride. Bottom is a comic counterpart to Theseus and to Oberon: the natural leader in his own world, to whom others defer. And when he encounters their worlds he more than holds his own.
The language of the play
Although we can observe features of the play's language on the page, it should be noted that the play was written (never published) by Shakespeare for theatrical performance, and that effects of language are meant to be heard, as by an attentive audience they would be. Moreover, few of these effects are merely decorative; most help interpret the action on stage. In discussing the play's language, you should not merely list matters of interest, but should structure your comments according to categories or some other arrangement. The headings under which this section of commentary has been arranged may help.
Language and theatre
In the play we hear dialogue used
But more importantly, it carries the action of the drama.
By narrating events, Shakespeare is able to shorten the time directly represented on stage while providing the audience with necessary background information. Good examples of this would be Puck's account to the fairy of his master's quarrel with Titania, or Titania's own account of how she came by the changeling child. Where a tale may be already known to most of the audience, the narration can be very brief, as in Theseus's "I wooed thee with my sword/And won thy love, doing thee injury". More immediate events not directly shown may also be narrated, as when Puck tells the audience he has gone through the forest "But Athenian found I none", or when Oberon tells Puck how he has met Titania, "Seeking sweet favours for this hateful fool" (Bottom) and that she has given up the child. Description, often with an element of narration, is essential to this play.
Imagination is an important theme, and the playwright boldly initiates a debate about imagination in the latter part of the play. "The best in this kind are but shadows, and the worst are no worse if imagination amend them", to which comes the retort that in watching Pyramus and Thisbe the "audience" must compensate for the defective imaginations of the "performers". In the Dream, as elsewhere, Shakespeare depends upon, but successfully excites, the audience's imagination. Things that cannot possibly be shown on stage are described vividly to us. These include:
A sense of the fairies' magical power and of exoticism is established in references to remote places ("the farthest steppe of India" or "the spiced Indian air") or Puck's ability to circle the earth in "forty minutes" (much less on stage). The wood, too, is exotic and ambiguous: it is beautiful but dangerous. The description of these things contrasts with the more homely and familiar elements: the native English flowers and herbs, and the folk traditions reflected in Puck's account of his mischief.
Often narration and description are mixed. This is true of the example cited above of Titania's account of the "votaress" of her order, as well as of her account of the disruption in the natural world caused by her quarrel with Oberon. Oberon, in his account of the "fair vestal, throned by the west" also mixes narration with descriptive detail, as does Puck when he explains to his master how "Titania wak'd and straightway loved an ass". The frequent references to the wood and the moon instruct us to keep thinking of what we cannot directly see, while a line such as "weeds of Athens he doth wear" explains Puck's mistaking Lysander for Demetrius. What the playwright conveys here is not sartorial information but the nature of Puck's error. Lysander could be wearing any style of clothing and we will accept what Puck says.
Comment is of course frequent in Shakespeare: characters comment on their own situation, on others' actions, or more generally. In the play's first act Lysander, Hermia and Helena comment on their own situation and move on to make general statements about love. Helena's general comments are wiser, as her own conduct is more foolish. In the final act of the play comes Theseus's extended discussion of the imaginations of poets, lovers and madmen, while some of the most memorable comment is made pithy by its brevity: "Reason and love keep little company together nowadays" and "Lord, what fools these mortals be!" Theseus's long speech on imagination is addressed ostensibly to Hippolyta but has the quality of thinking aloud usually found in the soliloquy, while two other remarkable extended comment-speeches (Helena at the end of 1.1, and Bottom at the end of 4.1) are soliloquies.
All of these invite the audience to reflect, with the speaker, on the subject of his comment. In this play songs have a special place, as in The Tempest. They allow unusual verse-forms, and these suggest to the audience the magical power that the fairies command. For the magic of "Cupid's flower" and "Dian's bud", a rhythmic tetrameter couplet (eight syllables, or seven by omission of the unstressed syllable, but always with four stresses) is used, and becomes the characteristic voice of Oberon, Puck and Titania in the latter part of the play. (In 2.1, not doing magic, but discussing their own affairs all three use the pentameter line, whether in couplets or blank verse.)
The action of the play - forms of dialogue
Where dialogue is not in the form of narrative, description or comment (that is, most of the time) it carries the action of the play. Thus, in the first scene Egeus and Demetrius demand a favourable judgement, Hermia asks what her options are but shows her seriousness, Theseus plays for time, the lovers resolve to flee from Athens and inform Helena who decides to betray them. The action of the next scene, as the mechanicals prepare their play, is far less schematic: all are on stage for the whole scene, and each tries to help the common purpose, although Quince at first and subsequently Bottom have more to say.
To clarify what can be a confusing play, Shakespeare has used more variety in the form of the dialogue than in most plays. Indeed, the amount of dialogue which is in rhyme is only exceeded by the earlier comedy Love's Labours Lost. In the Dream blank verse frequently gives way to rhymed couplets or more elaborate stanza forms, but is used for moments of high seriousness, where the use of rhyme gives a lighter effect. Good examples of this use of blank verse would be in the middle part of 1.1, where Theseus tests the seriousness of Hermia's love for Lysander, 4.1, before Bottom wakes, and Theseus's "lunatic...lover...poet" speech in 5.1.
But the best example comes in 2.1. Puck and the fairy have been speaking in couplets; their talk is of the homely pranks which Puck plays, and this comes after the brief account of Oberon's and Titania's quarrel. Thus, the change of mood from the light-hearted couplets about Puck's practical jokes to the angry opposition of the fairy king and queen is perfectly signalled by the opening outburst: "Ill met by moonlight". We will find similar transitions elsewhere, often switching from blank verse to the couplet to accelerate the action. At the end of 3.2, the two young women speak in matching six-line stanzas, while Oberon uses the same tetrameter line (twice the rhyme goes beyond a couplet) for giving love-in-idleness and later its antidote (2.2, 26-33; 3.2, 102-109 and 4.1, 70-73). The pentameter couplet is well-suited to the low comedy of Puck's pranks (2.1, 42 ff.) as it is to his account at the start of 3.2, of how his mistress "with a monster is in love".
The same line used earnestly with no trace of irony shows how ridiculous are the protestations of love for Helena made variously by Lysander ("Transparent Helena! Nature shows art,/That through thy bosom makes me see thy heart") and Demetrius ("O Helen, goddess, nymph, perfect, divine!/To what, my love, shall I compare thine eyne?"). Here the line is used mechanically but it can be used more fluently, as in Oberon's pastoral lyric ("I know a bank etc."), by Titania ("Out of this wood do not desire to go") and by Hermia ("Now I but chide, but I should use thee worse,/For thou, I fear, hast given me cause to curse"). We note, however, that as the young lovers' dissension moves to passion and the threat of violence, the playwright returns to blank verse.
After Puck has safely separated the antagonists, the impending resolution is shown by the return to rhymed verse: the two men speak in couplets, though Puck supplies whole or half lines; the two women speak in a six line stanza form (which, interestingly is used in successive speeches by Lysander and Helena, in 3.2, just after Puck's "Lord, what fools these mortals be") and Puck concludes the scene with a song: "On the ground/Sleep sound etc." What is striking is how the same formal line, such as the couplet, is used to such varied dramatic effect: Puck's homely account of mischief, the exaggerated passion of the young men or the beautiful lyricism of Oberon's description of Titania's bower. The tetrameter, always rhymed, usually in couplets, is used with less variety and only by the fairies: in the theatre it quickly comes to suggest to the audience a sense of magical activity, and it is the dominant verse form at the end of the play's last two acts. This line is used as Oberon and Titania "rock the ground whereon these sleepers be" and as they "sing and bless this place", and it is the line used by Puck as he addresses the audience at the play's conclusion.
It is a mistake to think that prose, in Shakespeare's plays is simply the limited speech of uneducated or "low" characters. (Apart from Theseus, Hamlet, Prince Hal [in Henry IV, part i] and Romeo all speak sometimes in prose). The idea that prose is a homogeneous indicator of class, is not supported by this play, where a great variety of prose forms is used. Interestingly, even the great Theseus, addressing the mechanicals at the end of their performance puts them at ease by speaking in sober but witty well-balanced prose: "Never excuse; for when the players are all dead, there need none to be blamed". As the nobles watch Pyramus and Thisbe they engage in bewildering word games: "Not so, my lord, for his valour cannot carry his discretion; and the fox carries the goose"..."His discretion, I am sure, cannot carry his valour; for the goose carries not the fox", as well as plain comment: "This is the silliest stuff that ever I heard." Humorous errors arise out of misuse of language: "He goes but to see a voice...", especially the malapropism: "there we may rehearse most obscenely" or "he comes to disfigure...the person of Moonshine".
But the theatrical possibilities of prose are best shown in Bottom's soliloquy at the end of 4.1. In the confusion of Bottom's attempt to explain his "vision" and his garbled allusion to St. Paul, as in his perfectly inappropriate idea that his "dream" will be written by Quince as a ballad, called "Bottom's Dream, because it hath no bottom", even more inappropriately to be sung at Thisbe's death - here Bottom achieves a fantastical lyricism which matches anything that has gone before, and, because he is attempting to describe what is deeply puzzling, the confusion of his account perfectly corresponds to the confusion of what he has experienced: "...man is but a patched fool if he will offer to say what methought I had".
Rhetoric, patterning and wordplay
In the Dream Shakespeare makes frequent use of formal rhetorical devices. An extensive list of these with their names is found in the Arden edition (pp. xlv-li). As many of these are over-wrought they are often used as expressions of the young lovers' exaggerated passion. Hermia's vow (1.1, 169 and following) has a series of phrases beginning identically: "...by Cupid's strongest bow,/By his best arrow with the golden head,/By the simplicity of Venus' doves,/By that which knitteth souls and prospers loves..."
Repetition and inversion abound, and frequently one character picks up a key word from another's speech: "You both are rivals and love Hermia/And now both rivals to mock Helena" (3.2, 155-6; "I would my father look'd but with my eyes."..."Rather your eyes must with his judgement look" (1.1, 56-7). We have lines which begin and end with the same word: "Weigh oath with oath, and you will nothing weigh" (3.2, 131), puns "For lying so, Hermia, I do not lie" (2.2, 51) and aphorisms (pithy wise sayings): "Things base and vile, holding no quantity,/Love can transpose to form and dignity" (1.1, 232-3).
The most highly-organized section of the play rhetorically may well be the lines following Lysander's dictum that "the course of true love never did run smooth" (which looks like a wise proverb but is manifestly untrue). Here, Lysander proposes a reason why love does not run smooth (beginning "Or") and Hermia glosses it (in lines beginning with "O"). The effect of the stichomythia is complex and shows the playwright's sense of theatre. We are inclined to see how serious the lovers' plight is, and to extend our sympathy, but the highly formal duet strikes us as slightly artificial: we feel they are making a melodrama out of a crisis. Patterning on a larger scale is to be found in the two speeches of Oberon which attend the giving of love-in-idleness see above). Though widely-separated each uses the same verse form, and an identical number of lines.
Patterning in six-line stanzas appear in 2.2, 122 ff. and 3.2, 431 ff. and 442 ff. Each woman uses the word "weary"; Helena rebukes the night; Hermia awaits the day. Some kinds of wordplay have already been considered above (malapropisms; misquotation of St. Paul; Lysander's punning). One should also note the repeated use of motif words, words which express ideas or things present throughout the play. In her first two lines, Hippolyta refers to "days", and to "nights" which will "dream away the time". Day and night, time and dreams are all key ideas in the play. The moon will measure the "four days" but there is also "fairy time" to contend with.
The idea of the dream recurs with Hermia's nightmare of the serpent, but it is in Act 4 that is importance becomes clear, and the word is repeated frequently, as Titania, the young lovers and Bottom all refer to their dreams, while in the next act, Theseus attempts to explain these dreams (with barely more success than Bottom). Puck concludes the play with his excuse that we have "slumbered here/While these visions did appear" and we are enjoined not to "reprehend" what yields no more "but a dream". We certainly do not reprehend, but we recognize that the modesty is false. If this is "but (only) a dream" it is a dream which "hath no bottom".
Other repeated motif words are those referring to the wood and to the moon. In the latter case, by making the moon the measure of time (according to Hippolyta), the source of light in the wood (but not much, as it has almost waned), a goddess or goddesses (Phoebe, Diana, the triple Hecate) to whom in classical Athens both serious and casual reference would naturally be made and a character in the mechanicals' play (conceived as the man-in-the-moon with dog and thornbush or brush) Shakespeare makes possible a huge number of occasions when these words are used. When Oberon tells Puck to "overcast the night" we may stop imagining the moonlight for a while! Characters in the wood (escaping or hunting or doing observance to a morn of May) may have reason to refer to the place. The audience is thus continually reminded that the bare stage is the Palace Wood. To add hunting hounds (offstage, of course, because in "the western valley") to our idea of the wood is no problem at all. Also no problem is believing that Puck, with his fairy eloquence, can convincingly mimic the speech of other characters.
Pyramus and Thisbe
Any discussion of language must consider the play within the play. Pyramus and Thisbe is not simply bad. In one respect, indeed (metrical scansion) it is surprisingly good: but this is used to make even more emphatic the rhyme-words which usually are comically inappropriate:
"These lily lips,
The prologue is excessively long. As an apology for the play it would be passable, but the misreading by Quince means phrases move from one sentence to another, and contradict the intended meaning, or lead to simple nonsense. "We are not here" should fall in the (perfectly correct) sentence: "We are not here that you should here repent you". Instead it is in the preceding sentence which becomes "All for your delight we are not here". The punctuation in modern editions of course is not what Quince was supposed to have before him, but an indication to the actor of how to place the stops in order to confuse the meaning of what is being read. This is made clear by the comments which follow: Quince "doth not stand upon points" and "knows not the stop".
Pyramus and Thisbe is bad for the reason that the Dream is good. It draws attention to the dramatic process and destroys the possibility of illusion. The actors try to present what could be described, to reassure the audience that the "illusion" of the lion is just that, and to identify themselves as lion, wall and moonshine. The play's confused title has its parallels in real work by Shakespeare's contemporaries. In Pyramus and Thisbe and in Bottom's "Raging rocks" speech in 1.2, Shakespeare shows his understanding of one technical aspect of performance. Alliteration as a poetic device can embellish the drama, but should not make the lines impossible to speak. Shakespeare's dialogue, save where characters are deliberately engaging in some kind of linguistic virtuosity (as in stichomythia) is remarkably easy to speak. But "Whereat with blade, with bloody blameful blade,/He bravely broached his boiling bloody breast" is impossible to pronounce with clarity.
If other writers are one target in Pyramus and Thisbe so are Shakespeare's own characters, especially the young lovers. We find echoes here of their speech. Helena's "O weary night" is echoed by Pyramus's "O grim-look'd night" while the stichomythia of Helena and Hermia in 1.1 ("The more I hate, the more he follows me"..."The more I love, the more he hateth me) is mirrored in the exchanges about Shafalus and Procrus. In general, the tendency of the young lovers to take themselves too seriously, with Lysander's fear about "the course of true love", is parodied in the over-seriousness of Pyramus and Thisbe.
The image of the rose
We can see how dialogue, including imagery, is written for theatrical performance, by examining Theseus's conversation with Hermia in 1.1. It is important that Hermia be taken seriously, but she must seriously consider her father's claim on her. Egeus does not really wish her dead but intends to force her to marry his choice of son-in-law. Theseus will not endorse these alternatives only, but proposes a third option, becoming a nun. However, he realizes that for Hermia to make this choice would be to renounce the prospect of maternity. If Hermia can forgo marriage, then her opposition is not just wilful pride. It is clear that whether the other characters are attending to him, or talking among themselves, Theseus is addressing Hermia directly. He first asks her about her sexual desire: "know of your youth, examine well your blood". He describes what he sees as the privations of the religious life, and concludes his argument with a flourish, in the metaphor of two roses: "the rose distill'd" and that which "withering on the virgin thorn/Grows, lives and dies, in single blessedness." This is a conventional and delicate way to speak to a young woman. It would not be gallant to speak directly of sexual relations, but the euphemism is easy for Hermia to understand.
In replying to Theseus, Hermia shows she has understood exactly what he means, understands the real nature of the choice she has to make, and shows that she is determined, if need be, to accept "single blessedness", rather than the "unwished yoke" of Demetrius. As she has shown her seriousness, Theseus, by insisting she take "time to pause", prevents her aggravating matters with more intemperate words to Egeus or Demetrius. In performance one could actually produce on stage a rose of either kind, but this would not be necessary to the Elizabethan imagination which would apprehend the image as much as its meaning, as Hermia, in her reply, shows (whereas the modern mind tries to discover the abstract "meaning" but not to see the concrete expression of it). Throughout the play one can find examples of dialogue which contains the information needed to speak it, which interprets the action to the audience, while shaping the performance of the actor.
Questions in exams
In preparing for exams you should be aware of the different kinds of question you may have to answer. These are questions based on a passage from the play, questions about themes and characters, and questions about the play as a work of theatre. In studying the text closely you should simply realise that the material studied can be approached in different ways in the exam.
Possible essay subjects
Examiners will play fair and are not likely to set a question on Peaseblossom or Snout. Essays explicitly about a single character are rare at Advanced level. Questions on relationships between, and the theatrical presentation of, characters are possible. Characters could be grouped by their connection with each other (Helena, Demetrius) but are more likely to be linked in some other way (Bottom and Puck and the nature of comedy; Oberon and Theseus, who embody authority). In this play, there is a fairly large number of characters about whom you should be able to write.
Questions about themes are very likely: as well as the opposition of order and disorder (and other oppositions - Athens and the wood, light and darkness, love and hate, comedy and tragedy) one might expect questions about nature and fertility, about love, reason or dreams.
Technical (theatrical) questions would be in order: these could address the structure of the play, the nature of comedy, symbolism (light and dark, dreams) and language: this is perhaps the most varied of all Shakespeare's plays in the forms of verse and prose employed by the characters, and notable for the ease and subtlety with which the dramatist switches from one form to another, often in the middle of, rather than between, speeches.
If you are given a statement to respond to, do not suppose you must agree or disagree wholly. Usually, the statement will be more or less fair but will invite some qualification. Wholly wrong comments are never used. Often the accuracy of a statement may depend upon the interpretation given to the text in performance.
Planning and starting an essay
Examiners usually want to see lots of material but without irrelevance or sacrifice of depth and thoroughness. Try to plan your essay to ensure that sufficient range of comment appears. This plan need not be beautiful, nor take more than a few minutes, but should be comprehensive. Embody the plan in your opening sentence(s), e.g.
The play's preoccupation with the themes of order and disorder, rule and anarchy appear in almost every element of the action: in Hermia's dilemma and Lysander's plan to escape "the sharp Athenian law"; in Titania's quarrel with Oberon, and the fairies' neglect of their duty to sustain fertility in the natural world; and in the incompetent attempts of the mechanicals to produce a play. These themes are also reflected in the structure of the play, as Shakespeare begins and ends the drama with very formal, controlled scenes, while in the middle section of the play the action is seemingly chaotic, though the dramatist's own tight control is partly reflected in the attempts of Oberon and Puck (by night, in the wood) and Theseus (in the rational day-time world of Athens) to impose order on wilful and passionate characters.
This opening informs the examiner that you have seen the main textual implications of the question set, and that you intend to organize your essay to cover all of these. Having set out the agenda in this way, you should pace your writing so you do cover all the parts of the subject.
Questions based on a passage from the play
In theory any episode from any scene in the play could be chosen; in practice the number of suitable scenes is more limited, but of course the extract chosen will only be a brief part of a longer scene.
Because of the part of such a question (usually) which refers to the themes of the play (not necessarily in so many words) and which implies consideration of before and after, scenes from the middle of the text are more likely to be chosen.
What the examiners do NOT want is a gloss (prose paraphrase or translation) of the extract given. This might make you feel secure, but you won't be.
What is required may be as follows, but read the examiners' instructions to make sure:
Usually, the examiners will give you an outline of how you should answer the question. You must organise your answer in these terms. Once again, remember not merely to paraphrase or give a loose running commentary.
Specimen question on a given passage
Discuss the importance to the play of the printed episode, and the scene from which it comes. You should write about all of the following:
An extract from the text of the play will follow this question.
Specimen question on a theme
"Reason and love keep little company together nowadays": How does the play present the relationship between reason and love? In your answer you should consider:
Specimen questions on theatrical qualities
In what ways have you found A Midsummer Night's Dream interesting as a play for dramatic performance? In your answer you may wish to discuss any of the following and other relevant comments on the play as a work of theatre:
What do the episodes involving Puck, Oberon and Titania contribute to the total dramatic effect of A Midsummer Night's Dream?
In your answer you should consider the following:
Open the play as a text file
Click on the links below to open text files of A Midsummer Night's Dream. These have been distributed by Project Gutenberg. You can choose a version with modernized or 17th century spelling forms. In Internet Explorer use a left mouse click to open and right click to download. In Netscape Navigator use a left mouse click and choose to open or download.
© Andrew Moore, 2001; Contact me