A few months ago I mentioned that I would like to revisit a few of Shakespeare’s plays, but for one reason or another I haven’t had time to do that until now. I thought this would be an appropriate time of year (unless you live in the southern hemisphere, of course) to look at A Midsummer Night’s Dream. As I’m not a Shakespearean scholar and haven’t actually tried to write about one of his plays since I was at school, this is not going to be an in-depth analysis. As the title of this post suggests, I am just going to give some of my thoughts on rereading the play.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is widely performed on stage, making it one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays. The play is thought to have been written around 1594-1596 and is classed as a comedy.
There are three separate storylines woven into the plot. The first involves the upcoming wedding of Theseus, the Duke of Athens, and Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons. A group of craftsmen (known as ‘mechanicals’) are rehearsing the story of Pyramus and Thisbe, a play they are planning to perform at the wedding. In the second thread we meet Oberon and Titania, King and Queen of the fairies. Titania has a new page boy and Oberon is jealous. He and his servant, the mischievous fairy Puck, come up with a plot to distract Titania while Oberon takes the boy away from her. The third storyline follows Hermia (who is in love with Lysander), Helena (who is in love with Demetrius), and Demetrius and Lysander (who are both in love with Hermia). Confusing? Yes – and it gets even more complicated when the four of them get mixed up in Puck and Oberon’s scheming!
In Act I Scene 1, Lysander tells us “the course of true love never did run smooth” – and the central theme of the play is love and its difficulties. Here is one of my favourite quotes on the subject of love:
Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind;
And therefore is wing’d Cupid painted blind:
Nor hath Love’s mind of any judgement taste;
Wings and no eyes figure unheedy haste:
And therefore is Love said to be a child,
Because in choice he is so oft beguiled.
The play begins and ends in Athens but the majority of the play is set in the nearby woods, a place free from Athenian law. With some of Shakespeare’s plays I find it difficult to get a real sense of the time and place, but with this one I have no problem picturing the characters running through the moonlit woods on a warm midsummer’s night while the fairies dance around them weaving their magic. The dreamlike mood is enhanced by the way much of the action takes place while various characters are sleeping. Here Oberon describes the bank where Titania sleeps:
I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine.
There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,
Lulled in these flowers with dances and delight;
As in several of Shakespeare’s plays there’s also a theme of doubling and symmetry with Theseus and Hippolyta mirroring Oberon and Titania, and the two men Lysander and Demetrius being balanced by the two women Hermia and Helena. The conflict is caused by the fact that although Hermia and Lysander are in love, Demetrius also loves Hermia, leaving Helena on her own. Only when the balance is restored by Demetrius falling in love with Helena can the story come to its conclusion.
If you’d like to read the play online you can do so here. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with a few words from Puck…
If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumbered here
While these visions did appear.
*The picture at the top of this post shows “The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania” by Sir Joseph Noel Paton, c. 1849 (in the public domain)