By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
The diarist Samuel Pepys wasn’t a fan of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Seeing a performance of the play in 1662, he wrote in his diary that it was ‘the most insipid ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life’ (though he adds that he liked the dancing, as well as the ‘handsome women’ he saw, ‘which was all my pleasure’).
Despite Pepys’ lack of enthusiasm (for the play itself, anyway), A Midsummer Night’s Dream remains one of Shakespeare’s most enduringly popular comedies. Before we offer some analysis of this play of magic and romance, it might be worth recapping the plot.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream: short plot summary
Theseus, the Duke of Athens, is getting ready to marry Hippolyta, the Queen of the Amazons, the race of female warriors from Greek mythology. Meanwhile, another planned marriage, between Hermia and Demetrius has been upset by the fact that another man, Lysander, has supposedly bewitched Hermia into loving him instead of her betrothed. Because Hermia’s father, Egeus, wants his daughter to marry Demetrius, Theseus (as Duke) orders Hermia to marry Demetrius or else enter a nunnery and take no husband.
Faced with this rather unappealing choice, Hermia decides to elope with her beloved, Lysander. Hermia confides this plan to her friend Helena, but Helena blabs it to Demetrius (whom Helena wants to marry herself).
Meanwhile, a group of manual workers, each with their own trade (Nick Bottom the weaver, Peter Quince the carpenter, Francis Flute the bellows-mender, etc.), meet to rehearse a play, based on the story of Pyramus and Thisbe from Greek mythology, which they will be performing as the entertainment at Theseus and Hippolyta’s wedding.
Meanwhile meanwhile, Oberon, King of the Fairies, tasks the mischievous sprite, Puck or Robin Goodfellow, to go and find the juice of a magic plant which has a peculiar quality: when sprinkled on the eyes of a sleeping person, they will wake up and fall for the first person they see.
Oberon, to convince his wife, Queen Titania to dote on their changeling child, sprinkles the juice on her eyes. Oberon tells Puck to do the same to Demetrius’ eyes so he will wake up and fall for Helena rather than Hermia. However, Puck accidentally sprinkles the plant on the wrong man, administering it to Lysander’s eyes instead of Demetrius’!
To amuse himself, Puck uses his magic to give Bottom the weaver an ass’s head in place of his human head, and when Titania wakes up she sees him and dotes on him, sending for her fairy attendants (Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Mustardseed, and Moth) to wait upon Bottom. Oberon has tried to correct Puck’s mix-up with Demetrius and Lysander by sprinkling Demetrius’ eyes with the magic juice, with the result that both men now love the same woman: Helena!
They all, thankfully, fall asleep, and while they snooze, Oberon uses his fairy magic to release them all from their various love-spells, and everyone ends up fancying the right person: Lysander is with Hermia, Demetrius with Helena, and Bottom has his proper head back. They all go to Athens for the royal wedding, and the workers perform their play about Pyramus and Thisbe.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream: analysis
As Harold Bloom pointed out in Shakespeare: The Invention Of The Human, four worlds essentially come together and interact with each other in A Midsummer Night’s Dream: the world of classical myth (represented by Theseus and Hippolyta), the world of ‘modern’ lovers (Helena, Hermia, Demetrius, and Lysander), the fairy world (Oberon, Titania, and Puck), and the rustic world of ‘mechanicals’ or labourers (Bottom, Quince, and the others).
But instead of these four worlds being kept distinct, the boundaries between them are transgressed, most famously when Titania, the Fairy Queen (perhaps recalling Queen Elizabeth I herself, whom Edmund Spenser had recently immortalised as such in his 1590s poem The Faerie Queene) falls for the lowly Bottom, whose head has been replaced by that of an ass.
In Shakespeare’s Language, Frank Kermode analysed A Midsummer Night’s Dream as the comic counterpart to the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet; both plays date from the mid-1590s, and it may be that Shakespeare intentionally conceived of A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a sort of inverse of the other play about ‘the course of true love’ (although that quotation comes from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, it is in Romeo and Juliet that the course of true love fails to run smooth; all is worked out in the end in the Dream).
Kermode also notes how many eyes there are in A Midsummer Night’s Dream: the words ‘eye’ and ‘eyes’ recur multiple times, and the gulf between illusion and reality is a key theme in the play. Our eyes can trick or deceive us; we can ‘dote’ on someone but that is not the same as loving them in a deeper and more long-lasting way; we create fantasies or, if you will, ‘dreams’ of our lovers which they can never live up to, and which put us at risk of a rude awakening further down the line.
Helena’s famously line, ‘Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind’, sums up the main ‘message’ of the play: that wanton love (lust, passing desire) is not true love, which is about more than superficial attraction or ‘looks’. The fact that the juice which makes people fall in ‘love’ with the next person they see when they wake up is from a flower called ‘love-in-idleness’ is a clue: for ‘idleness’ here, Kermode directs us to ‘wantonness’, which is what ‘idleness’ means in this connection.
From this, we might conclude that A Midsummer Night’s Dream represents the triumph of rational, lasting love over the pleasures of illusory love of attraction. But this overlooks the extent to which Shakespeare, the man of the theatre, loved illusion, and repeatedly vaunted its virtues in his work.
And Bottom’s transformation, whereby he ends up with the head of an ass, complicates any reductive analysis of the play which sees it as calling illusory love ‘bad’ and the other kind ‘good’.
As so often in the work of Shakespeare, this simplistic interpretation just won’t stand up. Bottom’s ‘rare vision’ of Titania invites our laughter, but it is sympathetic laughter: there is a sense that he has been emotionally as well as physically transformed by the night’s events. For Bloom, Bottom, the humble weaver, is the key to the play, and more than just a bit of rustic comic relief.
But Bloom’s assertion that ‘love at first sight, exalted in Romeo and Juliet, is pictured here as calamity’, is only partially true. Whilst the couples ultimately get paired off as we expect them to, Titania and Bottom’s moment together transcends comedic farce, and suggests that they have both been forever altered by the experience – not least because they don’t usually come into contact with each other (workman and queen, mortal and fairy).
For one, it is while she is under the spell of Bottom’s … unconventional looks that Titania agrees to give up the changeling boy to her husband, who wants to make the child his page.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream remains a popular play, and is often staged. In 1911, Herbert Beerbohm Tree staged a celebrated production which included live rabbits on stage. Indeed, there have been a number of ambitious productions of the play: Charles Kean’s 1856 production at the Princess’s Theatre featured 90 tutu-wearing sprites as part of the finale. Also appearing in the show was an eight-year-old Ellen Terry, playing the role of Puck.