By Donna R. Cheney
A Midsummer Night’s Dream was the nex play Shakespeare wrote after Romeo and Juliet, and the plays are as different as tragedy and comedy can be. Scholars who have looked for deep meaning in the A Midsummer Night’s Dream, have mostly found themselves frustrated. The whole play is comprised of illusion. It was intended as a joyous comedy, most likely to celebrate a court wedding, and the emphasis is fun, with comic elements arising from amazing contrasts. The dualistic world in which A Midsummer Night’s Dream takes place combines alien exotic with English familiar. The combination of plots encompasses elements which are both alluring and frightening, common and mystical, just as dreams usually are.
The action opens with Athenian Duke Theseus and the Amazon Hippolyra dreaming of their marriage which is to be celebrated in just four days. They come from two very different worlds; his is civilized, hers savage. He has defeated her in battle, even injuring her, and is marrying her as a trophy of war. Yet she is content, even eager, for the marriage, intending to dream away the four days till they are wed.
Contrasting sharply to this hope of merriment, indeed, after only twenty lines, an angry father/daughter tension is set up when Egeus brings his case before the duke. His daughter, Hermia, will not obey him. She wants to choose her own husband out of love, rather than bending to her father’s will. Though the two young men seem much the same in looks and fortune, as Egeus acknowledges, he threatens his daughter with death or eternal virginity if she will not yield. She does what any sensible modern woman would do: runs away with her beloved, from the court to the woods.
The woods represent leaving reality behind. Anything can happen in the woods, both wonderful and awful. The rigid court rules are suspended, and magic reigns. The characters are the same within themselves as they would be in an ordinary world, frightened or brave as the occasion demands, but the mystical setting allows their reactions to be exaggerated. Much of the humor is based on their unexpected reactions.
Hermia and Lysander slip into the woods at night, hoping that with morning’s light all can be happily resolved. They had not counted on fairies interfering. In a world of reality, who would?
As Hermia and Lysander wake from their bad dreams, in another section of the woods a group of mechanicals, English common craftsmen, are meeting to rehearse a grossly improper play to present for the duke’s wedding celebration. Their dream is simple; they love the money they are certain will be rewarded to them for their excellence. But they have never seen a play and have no idea how to put one on. The mechanicals bear names which are puns on the type of craft they follow. For instance, a bottom is the center spool a weaver’s skein of yarn is rolled around for the loom, just as Bottom is the center of their interaction. The mechanicals are English homespun characters trying to be more than they are, reaching into an alien world they don’t know.
Yet when Bottom meets the queen of the fairies, he feels at home. He is comfortable with fairies who are named for things familiar to him, Moth and Mustardseed and Cobweb. He is not aware that he bears the head of an ass, a reversal of the man-beast stories of most English folktales in which men keep their human heads when they bear half-beast bodies. Bottom leans back and bids the fairies bring him gifts, till even Titania can no longer stand the sound of his braying. Strangely, this scene is light and fun, not lustful. The wonder is that Titania can love a common ass, even with a velvet muzzle, when she is married to the beautiful king of the fairies. But the quarrels of the fairies are longstanding, since neither is faithful in marriage. Such a different standard for humans and fairies seems normal to all involved.
Balancing against mostly-human Bottom is Puck, a character of dual nature within himself. In English folk lore he is wicked, noted for leading travelers to harm or spirits to rise early from the dead. He even spoils good English beer by stealing the yeast before the liquor can ferment. Sometimes he is called Robin Goodfellow, a cross-your-heart name for the devil himself. But Puck is held in check in the Dream. He is Oberon’s messenger, doing as the fairy lord com-mands, bringing magic potions and interfering with love.
Puck’s mischief is mostly accidental, mis-matching the lovers so that in turn the two young men are in love with first Hermia, then Helena, before they get it right. Puck does add an extra turn for Oberon when he turns Bottom to an ass for Titania to fall in love with, but even that situation is righted finally, much to the better. Titania must yield to her lord’s leadership because he out-maneuvers her. Puck should have included the fairy folk when he exalted, “Lord, what fools these mortals be!”
So far we are balancing four plot-lines: the older lovers, Theseus and Hippolyta; the four young lovers and Egeus; the jealous/loving fairies; and the innocent/comic mechanicals, primanly Bottom. In the last act, the playwright adds a fifth story line, the tragic love tale of Pyramus and Thisbe. Strangely, this classical tale fits well into the English world. In fact, the Greek story pulls all the other story-lines together when the lovers and mechanicals join as the Dream moves back to the court to celebrate three weddings and a reconciliation. Through the success of the unwitting burlesque performed by the mechanicals, all quarrels end and everyone is happy.
Finally, tairy magic rrom tne woods intrudes on reality as Oberon and Tirania lead their fairy followers into the court to give their blessing. The lovers are promised beautiful, perfect children to perpetuate the joys of the perfect summer night we have shared. We have seen a great deal of “silly stuff” and thoroughly enjoyed, as Puck concludes, a “weak and idle theme, / No more yielding but a dream.”