A Midsummer night’s dream is a play that reflects what was happening at the time of the play. This play most likely included a plot about magical creatures and metamorphosis because the Elizabethans strongly believed in the supernatural. Few aspects of sixteenth century life were not affected by the belief of witchcraft and fairies, and if you had sinned people believed that you may be possessed by something demonic. The main theme in Act 1 Scene 1 is about the authority of parents and the law. The beginning of the play also highlights issues about the status of women in the sixteenth century. Women had very few rights and were treated as second-class citizens. Even educated females did not have full control of theft lives or a choice in which person they married. The father of the girl would usually choose a suitable match for her (usually being the wealthiest man available) and she was expected to marry him. Women were also treated unfairly within the world of theatre; men would prefer playing the part of women rather than letting a female perform on stage.
Act 1 Scene 1 of the play is full of examples of inequalities between men and women. Egeus brings his daughter Hermia to court because he wants her to marry Demetrius, who also lusts after her. Theseus tells Hermia that, under Athenian law, she must marry the man of her father’s choice, choose “single blessedness” (live in celibacy as a nun), or be sentenced to death. Theseus’s’ threat to Hermia is the reason for why the couple elope. This decision consequently leads the lovers into another love-triangle influenced by the world of magic, and the misuse of magic by Puck. Hermia and Lysander face problems in their relationship because of the authority of the law and Hermia’s farther, Egeus. The relationship between Helena and Demetrius also highlights the inequalities between men and women. Demetrius seduces and abandons Helena, and this fact reveals that Hermia was right in her decision to go against her father, and not marry Demetrius, as her farther had suggested. Helena keeps taking the abuse Demetrius throws at her because her love is irrational: “I am your spaniel; and, Demetrius, the more you beat me, I will fawn for you”. This quote reveals that Helena is being treated badly by Demetrius because he has used her, and is now taking advantage of her because she is just another woman to him. Shakespeare presents Demetrius as an unpleasant character who has no respect for women, and perhaps that is why in Act 5 Scene 1 Demetrius is the only character that is still under the influence of the love potion.
Theseus’ forthcoming marriage to Hippolyta, a lady warrior whom Theseus has defeated in battle, may have been Shakespeare’s ideal form of marriage, but it is yet again sending out a subtle message that supports the fact that women are weaker than men. The fact that Theseus had to conquer the queen of the Amazon to receive her hand in marriage suggests that Hippolyta had no choice but to marry the man who had beaten her in battle. Their relationship is not one of passion and love, but their wedding is the reason for the presence of the fairies and workmen in the forest near Athens, and it is Theseus’s command that drives the lovers there.
The opening scene of the play starts off seriously with a tragedy but it ends with a comical play. In Act 5 Scene 1 the problems between the four lovers have been resolved and after waking from their strange ‘dream’ Oberon had created for them Bottom, Helena, Demetrius, Hermia and Lysander are all bewildered at their recent experience. They can’t quite figure out whether it was all an illusion or reality. Theseus decides to watch the play within a play, Pyramus and Thisbe, because he appreciates the effort the workmen have put into the play. The workmen are all very simple characters, named according to their personality, and once they have performed their play, although it is bad, the audience finds the performances of Bottom and his colleagues comical and amusing. Theseus may have wanted to laugh at the workmen and their performance but he understands that they have worked hard and is more forgiving than Hippolyta: “If we imagine no worse of them than they of themselves, they may pass for excellent men”. This quote helps Shakespeare to show the kind and generous side of Theseus. Once the performance is over Puck and the fairies come out to bless the marriages, and the play ends with Puck’s epilogue. Puck speaks directly to the audience, suggesting that they have been asleep; he invites the audience to believe that, if they disliked the play, they just dreamed it: “No more yielding but a dream…now to ‘scape the serpent’s tongue…” This quote shows Shakespeare referring to the influence of imagination and fantasy on us all. Puck also mentions ‘shadows’ and he could be talking about fairies, or he could be talking on behalf of the actors that took part in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Shakespeare uses a number of different techniques to create humour in the play within a play, Act 5 Scene 1. One technique involves breaking the play’s illusion of reality: “You, ladies, you whose gentle hearts do fear the smallest monstrous mouse…then know that I one snug the joiner am a lion fell, nor else no lion’s dam…” This quote shows that A Midsummer Night’s Dream breaks theatrical illusion (actors talk to the audience about this being a play) to create comedy. The play within a play is interrupted several times by explanations by the actors out of the fear that they might scare the audience. Similes have also been used in Act 5, Scene 1 to comment on the play within the play, e.g. Hippolyta: “Played on his prologue like a child on a recorder”, Theseus: “His speech was like a tangled chain”. Similes can be used to describe performances. Hippolyta is comparing Quinces’ prologue to a child because she thinks that the play isn’t as professional as the workmen think it is. Other techniques that add humour to the play include ridiculous metaphors: e.g. ‘lily lips, cherry nose, cowslip cheeks’, excessive alliteration: e.g. ‘Come, blade, my breast imbrue: And farewell, friends; Thus Thisbe ends’, repeating a word excessively: e.g. ‘Now die, die, die, die, die’, and oxymoron: e.g. ‘Dainty duck, hot ice, etc.
Shakespeare also uses alliteration to help outline key words in a sentence, and to create beautiful atmospheres. An example of alliteration in Act 2 Scene1 is:
“And now they never meet in grove of green, by foundation clear of spangled starlight sheen.”
Alliteration is used at the end of both of these lines and creates a more memorable image of the surroundings. Shakespeare also uses repetition to transform sentences into songs/chants; this makes the speech ‘fun’, e.g. Puck: ‘Up and down, up and down, I will lead them up and down. I am fear’d in field and town; Goblin, lead them up and down…’ The use of repetition and rhyme by Puck at the end of this scene is used to create a poetic and figurative effect. In which the natural world is described well. The fairy scenes are very entertaining. Shakespeare also uses juxtaposition: “For I am sick when I do look on thee”/”And I am sick when I look not on you.”
The action in the play can be seen as a dream because Shakespeare uses the theme of dreaming to ignore logical thinking. For example, the fairies could be large (Titania is in an embrace with bottom) or tiny (creep into acorn cups, make coats from bat fur, etc.) This contradicting language may have been used to show that this is a part of an illusion/dream. Through out the play the theme of dreaming becomes very important because six characters fall asleep during the play, and even the title hints that the play is related to theme of dreams. Shakespeare uses a lot of contrast through out the play to keep the audience engaged. He uses contrasting characters and settings: Helena is tall (“painted maypole”) while Hermia is short, Titania is beautiful and Bottom is ugly, day (light): Theseus and Hippolyta/night (darkness): Oberon and Titania, Athens and the forest, etc. Shakespeare also used the theme of difficult love to create more symmetrical and ‘balanced’ situations as the play progressed; by the end of the play the love triangle between the four lovers no longer existed.
Shakespeare wrote most of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a style called blank verse. This style was fairly new in the 1500s. Shakespeare used blank verse to create a rhythmic pattern consisting of unstressed and stressed syllables. For example at the lines Hippolyta speaks to Theseus in Act 1 Scene1:
Four days will quickly steep (6 syllables)
themselves in night; (4 syllables)
Four nights will quickly dream (6 syllables)
away the time; (4 syllables)
Shakespeare frequently mixes Prose with blank verse through out the play to create a rhythmic tone. Shakespeare also uses different writing styles for each character to entertain and engage the reader. Hippolyta is the only character in the play that has a free range of speech, the lovers speak in rhyming couplets, the workmen express themselves in prose, and the fairies in short lined poetry. Oberon speaks in elegant blank verse to Titania but also in rhyming couplets similar to those of the lovers. Shakespeare uses a more complex form of poetry for the speeches of Oberon and Titania to make the fairy kingdom seem luxurious, so that his words would’ve been enough to catch the imagination of his audience.
Shakespeare will be successful in entertaining audiences for years to come because his plays don’t just consist of ordinary language; his plays are works of art. His precise and accurate poetry is so detailed that certain characters have certain amounts of syllables in their speeches (blank verse), e.g. the majority of lines in Oberon’s speeches have exactly 10 syllables. Shakespeare’s plays will still be successful for decades to come because his plays are imaginative and he can use symbolism to create hidden meanings in objects, e.g. the magical flower described by Oberon could be a symbol for irrational love or a metaphor for foolish and short-lived passion. In my opinion, Shakespeare was successful in keeping me entertained because A Midsummer Night’s Dream has three very good elements of entertainment; love, magic and comedy represented with different stories and characters.
Tina Harris Page