ohhh this is one of my favorites of Shakespeare! i swear so lighthearted and whimsical...
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found an excellent site with info on it (just love the descriptions :)) specially about christian right!): http://www.pathguy.com/mnd.htm
will quote it just incase though:
-A Midsummer Night's Dream" inspired four hundred years of stories and pictures of tiny, butterfly-winged people living in the woods. Walt Disney's fairies are their descendants.
- Felix Mendelssohn's production music remains very popular, including the "Wedding March". Love that wedding march!
- For over 200 years, the play was never put on stage except as adaptations.
- For years, Puck was featured at the top of many Sunday comics, with the banner "What fools these mortals be."
- Modern productions most often depict the people of the woods as overtly erotic, savage, and sinister.
- Goethe's "Faust" features a burlesque of his own times as "The Golden Wedding Anniversary of Oberon and Titania."
- Today's Religious Right is divided on the question of whether the play is good family entertainment or a satanic exercise.
- The popular movie "Dead Poets Society" used the play as a metaphor for young people choosing nonconformity.
- The best-known character, "Bottom", is transformed into an "ass" and becomes the "butt" of jokes. What could be "behind" this?
- The play-within-a-play, which retells a story from Ovid, looks like Shakespeare's parody of his own "Romeo and Juliet".
Plot and Characters
Don't focus on story in "A Midsummer Night's Dream". The tale is simplicity itself. It's about ideas and emotion rather than plot. Notice that the fairies' magic takes place at night -- how much is really a dream?
Theseus, Duke of Athens, is about to marry Hippolyta, a lady warrior who he conquered. Egeus brings his daughter Hermia to court. She and Lysander want to get married, but Egeus wants her to marry Demetrius, who also wants her. Under Athenian law, Hermia must marry the man of her father's choice, choose "single blessedness" (i.e., celibacy in a religious order), or be executed. Theseus says he will enforce this law and gives everyone a few days to decide. Demetrius has seduced and abandoned Helena, Hermia's friend. Lysander and Hermia decide to elope and get married in the next town, beyond the reach of Athenian law. (Probably Theseus and everybody else expects them to do this anyway.) Hermia tells Helena, who tells Demetrius in order to ingratiate herself to him. Hermia and Lysander flee into the woods, Demetrius follows the lovers, and Helena follows him.
Out in the forest, Oberon and Titania, king and queen of fairyland, have quarrelled over who will raise an orphaned Indian boy. Oberon sends Puck to find a magic flower. Cupid's arrow, aimed at Queen Elizabeth, was diverted and hit the flower ("love in idleness", a pansy). Now this flower's juice, applied to a sleeper's eyes, will make the person fall in love with whoever he or she sees first upon awakening. Puck brings the flower, and Oberon applies it to the eyes of sleeping Titania. Oberon then tells Puck to apply it to the eyes of Demetrius, so that when he wakes and sees Helena he will love her instead.
Hermia and Lysander fall asleep, with Lysander honoring Hermia's request to sleep a little distance away. Puck mistakes Lysander for Demetrius and puts the love juice in his eyes. Helena sees Lysander, thinks he may be hurt, and wakes him. Lysander sees Helena and falls in love with her. This gives rise to a comic situation, with much clever language and remarks about the ironies and irrationality of love.
Some skilled laborers have gone into the woods to rehearse a play for the wedding. They rewrite it, replacing the lovers' parents by "the moon" and "a wall". Puck puts a donkey head on Bottom the weaver. Titania, awakening, falls in love with him. (In Elizabethan times, the male donkey was proverbial for his generous sexual endowment.)
Demetrius and Lysander meet Helena and Hermia and the love-comedy continues, with the men about to come to blows. Oberon sees what has happened, and instructs Puck to separate the two men, which he does using ventriloquism. Lysander is lost in the dark and decides to sleep it out. Demetrius is tired and rests, and Puck applies the love juice. Oberon applies the antidote to Lysander and Titania. Demetrius wakes up and falls in love with Helena. Theseus enters, the now properly-paired lovers are united, and everybody is happy. The humans wonder how much of the night's events have been real, and how much was a dream. The laborers perform their play-within-a-play. Although it's bad, Theseus and the others appreciate the sincerity and effort.
Don't look for depth of characterization in "A Midsummer Night's Dream". It's about ideas rather than personalities. Here are a few hints.
Theseus: Kind and generous. He must enforce the law, but talks privately with Egeus and Demetrius (I.i.115) to get them to relent. He appreciates the effort that goes into the play-within-a-play, and the sincerity of the ordinary people. He lets his imagination turn good people's sincere effort into a good performance.
Hippolyta: More literal-minded than Theseus. She cannot bring her imagination to consider a bad play good. But she notes that the lovers' tale of paranormal experience in the woods presents "great constancy" -- what paranormal investigators look for today. Like most of us, Hippolyta decides, "If they're all telling the same story, there may be something to it."
Philostrate: Master of ceremonies for Theseus. In Chaucer's The Knight's Tale, one of the rival lovers takes the name "Philostrate" to work for Theseus and Hippolyta. This is almost certainly an oblique reference to Chaucer's tale.
Demetrius: Not a nice person. By the time he says he wants to feed Lysander's carcass to his hounds, this seems completely in character. I don't know what Helena sees in him. Neither does she -- such is the irrationality of love, even before the lovers enter the forest. He is the only one who remains under the influence of the magic juice. This is probably good.
Helena: Tall, blonde beauty. Verbal abuse from Demetrius has made her think she's ugly. We have to hope that the love juice never wears off Demetrius, or she is in trouble
Hermia: Short, dark-complected beauty. Spunky and likable.
Lysander: Likable, rationalizer, sense of humor. He suggests Egeus and Demetrius get married. He cites classic stories as models for "the course of true love", and thinks the effects of the love juice are the workings of his own "reason".
Peter Quince: Playwright for the amateurs.
Nick Bottom the Weaver: Enthusiastic. Wants to play all the roles. Likes to overact.
Francis Flute the Bellows Mender: Young man. He points out that he's just getting his facial hair. He thinks this will make playing Thisbe a problem, but this is actually why he was chosen.
Robin Starveling the Tailor: Just a few lines portray a pessimist. He plays the part of the moon. He seems to forget his lines, and explains who he is in prose.
Snug the Joiner: "I am slow of study". The lion need only roar. Actually Snug does learn a few lines.
Tom Snout the Tinker: Literal-minded. Plays the wall.
Often the same actor who plays Theseus also plays Oberon, the same actor who plays Philostrate plays Puck, and the same actress who plays Hippolyta plays Titania. You may enjoy thinking about why this makes sense, especially if the dream-world is a shadow of ours. One of my correspondents reminded me that this also happens in the film version of "The Wizard of Oz".
How Now, Spirit!
"A Midsummer Night's Dream" is unusual among Shakespeare's plays in lacking a written source for its plot. The wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta was described in Chaucer's "Knight's Tale" and elsewhere. The theme of a daughter who wants to marry against her father's desires was a common theme in Roman comedy. Bottom and his friends are caricatures of amateur players.
Shakespeare must have derived his forest spirits from oral folk traditions. The mysterious people of the forest might be in turn helpful (household chores), mischievous (pranks, illusions), or sinister. In "Henry IV Part I", the king relates a folk legend that "some night-tripping fairy" might steal babies and leave a fairy child or someone else's child (a "changeling", see II.i.23). People may have believed, or half-believed, in the fairies (elves, sprites, pixies, leprechauns, and so forth). "Goblin" was the name of a lesser devil in "Piers Plowman", and Puck's aliases include "Hob Goblin" (Robert Goblin). They might also have been imaginary figures of fun that personify nature, as we speak of "Mother Nature" and the artistic "Jack Frost", painter of autumn leaves and creator of the beautiful ice patterns on windowpanes.
Literary trips to fairyland included "Sir Orfeo", a retelling of Orpheus's descent to the underworld. Sir Orfeo visits a dreadful supernatural realm in which other humans are imprisoned, looking as they did at the moments of their deaths. "Thomas of Erceldoune" met the fairy queen, who took him to her realm, full of beautiful people living in luxury -- as Satan's cattle.
So far as I know, Shakespeare is the first writer to portray the faerie folk as tiny or cute.
No More Yielding than a Dream
In the realm of illusion, notice several elements in which logic is suspended in favor of symbolism, as in our own dreams.
Puck describes his own helpful and harmful behavior as if it is all logically consistent.
Are the fairies large (Titania embraces Bottom) or tiny (creep into acorn cups, wrap in a snakeskin, make coats from bat fur)?
Do the spirits fly around the globe with the night, or watch the dawn and have diminished powers during the day? Shakespeare describes both.
"A Midsummer Night's Dream" breaks theatrical illusion, the rule that the players do not talk to the audience about this being a play. Oberon begins (because Shakespeare must have him do so) by saying, "I am invisible." The play-within-a-play is interrupted several times by explanations by the actors.
Nowadays, breaking theatrical illusion is a easy laugh. For example, in "The Hostage", Brendan Behan has characters say, "Silence! This is a serious play!", "That's the kind of joke this audience understands", and "That song has just about brought the show to a standstill." In Shakespeare, even "asides" are unusual, though he uses prologues as modern movies may begin with text or voiceover giving the background.
The amateur actor's concern about the lion frightening the ladies probably refers to an episode in which actors who were to impersonate lions were omitted from James of Scotland's parade, out of fear of frightening the audience. The actors decide the lion must be played with a half-mask, so people will realize it's really a person.
Not With the Eye, But With the Mind
The key passage in the play is Theseus's speech on "the lunatic, the lover, and the poet" (V.i.5-22). Mentally ill people hallucinate, lovers see ugly people as beautiful, and poets create an imaginary world to give life to ideas ("giving to airy nothing a local habitation and a name"). Fear can make even a normal person in dim light can mistake a bush for a bear.
As you read the play, focus on the theme of how emotions, however irrational, color perception. Shakespeare is writing about how fantasy and imagination influence how we see the world, and how we see and behave toward each other.
Egeus accuses Lysander of being insincere, and using evil magic to win Hermia's love (I.i.27-32). Actually, it's Egeus who's fantasizing.
Hermia says, "I wish my father looked but with my eyes", to which Theseus replies "Rather your eyes must with his judgment look" (I.i.56-57). No two people see the world in the same way.
Helena knows Demetrius is a jerk, says he has bad taste in women, etc., etc. But Helena loves him anyway (I.i.226-233). She reflects on love's blindness and sudden changeability (234-245).
Demetrius, who remains under the influence of the love juice, remarks after talking with Theseus in the woods that he doesn't know what he dreamed, and what really happened.
Theseus says that even the best theatrical productions are "shadows", and that imagination can "amend" (mend, repair) a bad play so it seems good. Notice that Theseus is himself a character in a play.
At the end, Puck invites the audience to believe that, if they didn't like the play, they just dreamed it.
You will find many more such passages. This would be a good paper topic.
In a freshman bull session in 1969, I was asked how a beautiful lady falling in love with a donkey-headed loud-mouthed fool related to anything at all. I had no good answer. Four years later -- after observing that the most socially successful among my classmates had been the do-nothings and the substance-abusers -- I could have answered eloquently. Hee-haw!
Following Darkness Like a Dream
You'll need to decide for yourself just how sinister the spiritual powers in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" really are.
Oberon and Titania have manipulated Theseus and Hippolyta.
The boy over whom the fairy king and queen quarrel is the son of an "Indian King" and a "votaress of [Titania's] order", evidently a celibate who was forced by a warlord. (Elsewhere in the play, Oberon calls Queen Elizabeth "the imperial votaress", because she was supposedly celibate.)
Oberon is simply wrong to demand the child of Titania's dedicated servant who died giving him birth.
Shakespeare has changed Greek myth to have Oberon assist Theseus in deserting "Perigenia whom he ravished" (raped, date-raped, took advantage of, or whatever.)
Perigenia is Perigoune (say peh-ree-gou-NAY), daughter of a robber. She hid in an asparagus patch while her father was killed, and afterwards she and Theseus fell in love and had a son who was legendary ancestor of an ancient Greek community.
The battle between Oberon and Titania has devastated nature and hurt people. Neither one cares. Note in particular the picture of sheep killed in a flash flood, rotting and being eaten by crows.
Puck "misleads night-travelers, laughing at their harm." This is the will-o-wisp, the eerie light that leads night travellers off the road and into the marsh. Today we suppose that this is swamp gas.
The fairies enact a charm around the sleeping Titania, to ward off the ugly and dangerous creatures of the night -- worms, poisonous snakes, spiders, newts, beetles. "Philomel(a)" is the nightingale (some say swallow); her story from classical mythology involves rape, mutilation, and cannibalism. Note that the "one sentinel" fairy silently betrays his mistress to Oberon, who says to Titania, "Wake when some vile thing is near.".
Titania tells her fairies to cut the legs off bees and pull the wings off butterflies to create creature comforts for Bottom.
Titania tells Bottom, "Thou wilt remain here, whether thou wilt or no."
Puck remarks that only one male human in a million keeps his promises.
As the spirit of chaos and unreason, Puck says, "And those things do best please me / That befall preposterously!"
Puck promises to prevent birth defects in the newlyweds' babies. Can/do the fairies also cause these?
In "A Midsummer Night's Dream", imagination makes impossible things into reality.
Theseus woos Hippoyta "with his sword". On opposite sides in battle, they fall in love. Enemies become friends (the mismatched lovers, the families of Pyramis and Thisbe.)
Helena's affection for Demetrius seems to make him hate her. Hermia's hatred seems to make him love her.
In the dream world of the forest, deer chase tigers as Helena pursues Demetrius.
Like Demetrius's whipped spaniel, Helena grows fonder from mistreatment.
Pyramis is white as a lily, red as a rose.
Theseus and Hippolyta, describing the hunt, with the hounds sounding random, discordant notes, celebrate the wild, free beauty of chaos.
The play-within-a-play is "tragical mirth, merry and tragical, tedious and brief."
The Religious Right
Somebody will probably tell you that Bottom is a parody of Puritanism, the Elizabethan version of our own Christian Right. These people sought to "purify" religious practice and popular culture. One item on their political agenda was making theater illegal. The Puritans were unpopular with folks who liked to go to Shakespeare's plays. Shakespeare parodies Puritans elsewhere (do you understand the joke in the opening line of Julius Caesar?) The claim that Bottom is a caricature of a Puritan rests on the following:
He is a pretentious, loud-mouthed fool;
He gets a donkey head for a while;
He attempts to quote Paul ("The eye of man has not heard...");
Commentators will tell you that a disproportionate number of weavers were Puritans. I am not aware of any evidence that this is true.
You'll need to decide for yourself whether Bottom is a Puritan. Members of the Religious Right would occasionally blast "A Midsummer Night's Dream" as "satanic", etc., because of the magic and nature spirits. When I first posted this page in 1994, there were several links; all have disappeared.
Christian Answers -- a conservative Christian site, praises "A Midsummer Night's Dream" for its family values.
What Does It All Mean?
I have had a dream, past the wit of man to say what dream it was: man is but an ass, if he go about to expound this dream.
Don't look for a grand metaphysical theory or a system of right living in "A Midsummer Night's Dream", or most other works by Shakespeare. His work mirrors human experience.
We will probably not meet Puck and his supernatural companions when we go into the woods. But when we fall in love, or go crazy, or do creative writing, or fall asleep and dream, we enter the realm of the imagination. This happens even when we choose -- as Theseus does -- to look beyond performance at intention.
Even if we pride ourselves (as Lysander does) on being "rational", there are important facets of our humanity that are both non-rational and beyond our control. "A Midsummer Night's Dream" celebrates this essential fact of life.
To include this page in a bibliography, you may use this format: Friedlander ER (1999) Enjoying "A Midsummer Night's Dream" by William Shakespeare Retrieved Dec. 25, 2003 from http://www.pathguy.com/mnd.htm
For Modern Library Association sticklers, the name of the site itself is "The Pathlogy Guy" and the Sponsoring Institution or Organization is Ed Friedlander MD.