Shakespeare’s comedies, like those of most Renaissance playwrights, involve love and its obstacles. Much of the comedy in A Midsummer Night’s Dream derives from the attempt of Lysander and Hermia to remain together while overcoming the “blocking figure” (the adult authority figure who attempts to hinder the love of a young couple). The overcoming of an obstacle (in this case, Egeus) functions as a common motif in Renaissance comedy. The audience must wonder, however, whether Lysander and Hermia, as well as Demetrius and Helena, actually love each other. While it is the love potion that alters the objects of the men’s affections, one may interpret the juice as a metaphor for lovers’ inconstancy. The juice only contains magic because the male lovers do not possess a fervent and true love. It is significant that Lysander and Demetrius change their minds about whom they love, but Hermia and Helena never waver; perhaps Shakespeare correlates faithfulness with gender.
Audience members generally support the relationship between Lysander and Hermia—partly because her father does not. They are struck by his indifference to his daughter’s happiness: He prefers that she die rather than be happy with a man of whom he does not approve. Egeus, furthermore, provides no reason to Theseus as to why he does not support Lysander; it is as if he disapproves for arbitrary reasons—merely to exert his will. His abuse of paternal authority renders him absurd but dangerous nevertheless. His support for Demetrius colors the audience’s point of view of the young lover. If one supports Lysander, one cannot approve of Demetrius, who initially enters the woods in the role of obstructionist, not lover.
Male domination also plays an integral role in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Shakespeare links the romantic relationships with male authority and aggressiveness. When Demetrius cannot persuade Hermia to love him, he attempts to rape her. Theseus marries Hippolyta after first subduing her physically in battle. Oberon, already coupled with Titania, feels compelled to control her by possessing her changeling, of whom he is jealous.
The rude mechanicals choose poorly by deciding to perform a lover’s tragedy at a wedding celebration, yet the choice may not be far-fetched in terms of the plot. Although this comedy ends happily, much of the play demonstrates the potential for tragedy. Demetrius could have raped Hermia. Helena could have ended up with both suitors while Hermia lost both. Oberon could have remained in his bitter struggle with Titania, who, in turn, could have remained in love with an ass (Bottom). These relationships could have terminated forever. Part of the comic charm of the play derives from the fact that the complications work out so that the conclusion, which could be unhappy, results in joy, marriage, and order.
The play is partly about order and disorder. Athens represents the order of a civilized society, while the forest symbolizes disorder and chaos. The woods proves more appealing, however, because it allows for freedom, while the city, with its law that a woman who refuses to marry the man whom her father chooses may die, demonstrates the evils of a restrictive culture. The romantic relationships work themselves out successfully in the disordered, not in the ordered, society.
The play concludes with the play-within-a-play, as the audience watches Hermia and Lysander, Helena and Demetrius, and Theseus and Hippolyta view the play of the rude mechanicals. The lovers gently mock the incompetent actors, with humor but without malice. The play-within-a-play permits Shakespeare to provide commentary and inside jokes regarding stagecraft.
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
“The course of true love never did run smooth,” comments Lysander, articulating one of A Midsummer Night’s Dream’s most important themes—that of the difficulty of love (I.i.134). Though most of the conflict in the play stems from the troubles of romance, and though the play involves a number of romantic elements, it is not truly a love story; it distances the audience from the emotions of the characters in order to poke fun at the torments and afflictions that those in love suffer. The tone of the play is so lighthearted that the audience never doubts that things will end happily, and it is therefore free to enjoy the comedy without being caught up in the tension of an uncertain outcome.
The theme of love’s difficulty is often explored through the motif of love out of balance—that is, romantic situations in which a disparity or inequality interferes with the harmony of a relationship. The prime instance of this imbalance is the asymmetrical love among the four young Athenians: Hermia loves Lysander, Lysander loves Hermia, Helena loves Demetrius, and Demetrius loves Hermia instead of Helena—a simple numeric imbalance in which two men love the same woman, leaving one woman with too many suitors and one with too few. The play has strong potential for a traditional outcome, and the plot is in many ways based on a quest for internal balance; that is, when the lovers’ tangle resolves itself into symmetrical pairings, the traditional happy ending will have been achieved. Somewhat similarly, in the relationship between Titania and Oberon, an imbalance arises out of the fact that Oberon’s coveting of Titania’s Indian boy outweighs his love for her. Later, Titania’s passion for the ass-headed Bottom represents an imbalance of appearance and nature: Titania is beautiful and graceful, while Bottom is clumsy and grotesque.
The fairies’ magic, which brings about many of the most bizarre and hilarious situations in the play, is another element central to the fantastic atmosphere of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Shakespeare uses magic both to embody the almost supernatural power of love (symbolized by the love potion) and to create a surreal world. Although the misuse of magic causes chaos, as when Puck mistakenly applies the love potion to Lysander’s eyelids, magic ultimately resolves the play’s tensions by restoring love to balance among the quartet of Athenian youths. Additionally, the ease with which Puck uses magic to his own ends, as when he reshapes Bottom’s head into that of an ass and recreates the voices of Lysander and Demetrius, stands in contrast to the laboriousness and gracelessness of the craftsmen’s attempt to stage their play.
As the title suggests, dreams are an important theme in A Midsummer Night’s Dream; they are linked to the bizarre, magical mishaps in the forest. Hippolyta’s first words in the play evidence the prevalence of dreams (“Four days will quickly steep themselves in night, / Four nights will quickly dream away the time”), and various characters mention dreams throughout (I.i.7–8). The theme of dreaming recurs predominantly when characters attempt to explain bizarre events in which these characters are involved: “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 t’expound this dream,” Bottom says, unable to fathom the magical happenings that have affected him as anything but the result of slumber.
Shakespeare is also interested in the actual workings of dreams, in how events occur without explanation, time loses its normal sense of flow, and the impossible occurs as a matter of course; he seeks to recreate this environment in the play through the intervention of the fairies in the magical forest. At the end of the play, Puck extends the idea of dreams to the audience members themselves, saying that, if they have been offended by the play, they should remember it as nothing more than a dream. This sense of illusion and gauzy fragility is crucial to the atmosphere of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as it helps render the play a fantastical experience rather than a heavy drama.
More main ideas from A Midsummer Night’s Dream