Midsummer Nights Dream

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Explore the Theme of Marriage in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’

The play ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ was written by William Shakespeare in 1594.  From the theme and context of the play, I can conclude that it was probably written for a wedding.  It would be similar to the epithalamion written at weddings at this time, but a more elaborate version.  Many of the lines rhyme and it all has the feel of poetry: some beautiful and some seeming supernatural and spell-like.  It canvasses all aspects of marriage through plot, characters and symbolism, touching on both light and dark areas.   The tragic side is shown more through references that actually spelling it out; Pyramus and Thisby is one example of a union which ended in catastrophe.  However, despite this, the main idea of marriage is perceived as harmonious; all is shown in a ‘comic’ frame, with a humorous touch and a happy ending.  This would be an appropriate feel for a wedding play because it gives the concept of marriage an idyllic feel, telling the newlyweds what they want to hear: that marriage is a good idea.  

If you search the play in depth, you will find that not only is it about the union of people in a marriage, but also about the unity of opposing forces in nature and bringing harmony from chaos.  It is also, in an even broader sense, about the Elizabethan ideals about God and the universe.  To clarify exactly what these ideals were and how ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ defines them, I must start at the beginning with the story of Adam and Eve.

Elizabethans believed in everything fitting into its natural place.  After studying the sky, they thought the universe was made up of spheres, one containing the stars, one containing planets and so on.  They thought the Earth was at the centre of the universe; the spheres they believed in were a way of dealing with the fact that different bodies in the sky moved in different ways.  It was thought that these spheres made the world harmonious, but humans couldn’t see the true beauty of it because of Adam and Eve.

The legend goes that Eve was tempted by the serpent and ate the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden.  This, apparently, caused the whole human race to fall from God’s grace.  Now, the relevance of this to ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ and the theme of marriage is that when this happened, it meant man kind could not the ‘music’ of the spheres; they were only told by God that everything had its place.  Even the evil in the world has a reason for being there.  Humans cannot see quite how everything fits in because of their sin. They do not fully understand why some things happened because they can’t see the ‘big picture’.

This was illustrated by the ‘Great Chain of Being’.  God came at the top of this chain, with angels under Him.  Then came nature (represented by Oberon and Titania), people (shown in all the human characters), and below them animals, plants and rocks.  Humans came between animals and Angels, a relationship personified by Bottom.  He is a typical human, not very bright or beautiful, but just a normal working class person.  He then has a link with both the animal and angel world; he is turned into an ass and he has a relationship with Titania.  This establishes the link between animals, angles and humans, and also tells you about the human nature.  They are always trying to find something greater that themselves (for example fairies or angels) but to the greater beings, they must look as animals do to us – far beneath them and having little or no brains.

Also exhibiting the same way of thinking was the fact that men came above women in the category of humans.  If you were to sum up the play with one idea, this is the single idea addressed most eloquently.  Many events in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ suggest the superiority of men, through the media of imagery, plot and characters, which will be tackled later.

The Elizabethan idea of the cosmos is also addressed by the union of opposites connected with marriage.  Their idea of the universe is that everything joins together perfectly and everything has its place.  Things which may not seem to have a purpose will have been created by God for a reason; we just don’t know what that is.  The prime example is the joining of a man and a woman in marriage.  It may seem to make more sense to join two women or two men, as these will have more in common, but this play is trying to say a little of both the male and female persona is needed to make the match united.  They are like opposite forces, but marriage brings them together.  It is as is they have only half of the qualities needed to bring harmony and they must be brought together in marriage to make a ‘whole’.  The same is also being expressed through the union of other opposite forces.

There are many contrasting pairs which link hand in hand in this play: night and day; sleeping and waking; supernatural and mortal; discord and harmony; passion and reason; and ultimately female and male.  These pairs are all the exact opposite of each other; and yet Shakespeare is presenting the notion that we need each half of the pair to make the world harmonious.  One couldn’t survive without the other: to appreciate daytime, we need night; the wood’s wildness must co-exist with the civility of the city; and although passion is sometimes necessary, it must be balanced out by reason.  It is with these pairs in mind – and the picture of a spherical, united universe just out of their reach – that the reader must view the concept of marriage in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’.  Shakespeare is highlighting the fact that both males and females have certain individual qualities, and the purpose of a marriage is to unite the two opposites to bring accord.

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The theme is extended beyond the union of people.  The play is intentionally full of these contrasts, which the audience should link with the human idea of marriage.  It is as if there are two worlds operating beyond anyone’s control and each is linked with either the male or female.  On one side, there is the daylight, sunny world of Athens, home of the human characters where all is harmonious, waking and governed by reason.  The ‘Athens World’, as I will call it, is most associated with the male personality.  On the other extreme, there is the confusing, night-time, sleeping ...

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