A Midsummer Night’s Dream was written by William Shakespeare c. 1595. It was probably written to be performed at the wedding of a longstanding patron of the actors with whom Shakespeare worked. The play is set in Athens, Greece and draws upon traditional folktales by incorporating characters such as Oberon, Titania and Robin Goodfellow. Mythological references are also made with the inclusion of Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons. Shakespeare also makes reference to Tudor festivals by adding references to harvest and maypoles. The play features four main groups of characters, The Court, The Lovers, The Rude Mechanicals, and the Fairies.
The four groups are linked by running themes including, love, marriage, night and also the natural world. At the beginning of the play the audience is introduced to Theseus, Duke of Athens, and Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons who are preparing to marry. Their marriage has come about from Hippolyta’s defeat in war; “I have woo’ed thee with my sword. ” Shakespeare has introduced an artificial and arranged love in the first scene of the play. This is in contrast to the Lovers Hermia and Lysander who are truly in love, but are forbidden to marry by Egeus.
In an attempt to stop them from marrying, and wishing to assert Athenian law, Egeus takes the Lovers to Theseus. Insisting upon Hermia’s marriage to Demetrius only angers the Lovers. His foolish actions force the Lovers to run away into the woods, which in turn could be seen as foolish, as the two are turning they back on the order of Athens. The contrast between age and youth at the beginning of the play serves to emphasize the differences of opinion between the Court and the Lovers. Whilst the City is seen as a symbol of law and order, the wood represents chaos and lawlessness.
Knowing of Hermia’s plan to flee, Helena decides to tell Demetrius of their flight, in order to win praise. Helena is foolish for not only does she drive Demetrius closer to Hermia, but in the process degrades herself to the level of “spaniel”. At the beginning of Act 1 Scene 2 the audience are introduced to the Rude Mechanicals, who are meeting to rehearse their play. The play is entitled The Most Lamentable Comedy and Most Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisbe, which as a title is not only foolishly long, but also contains the confusing oxymoron ‘lamentable comedy’.
Shakespeare has linked the themes of this foolish play to those of the main play by discussing unrequited love. The play will be performed in front of the Duke and Duchess on their “wedding day at night”. The two main characters in the group are Peter Quince and Nick Bottom. Quince is the organized and disciplined leader in contrast to the egotistical and self absorbed Bottom. Their characters serve to highlight the distinctions drawn between order and chaos that run throughout the play. The main function of the Mechanicals is to provide an overt comic distraction from the actions of the Lovers and Court.
Their foolishness is seen in their lack of understanding of the play, and in their misuse of language. Bottom makes continual malapropisms and in wishing to play all the parts fails to understand simple theatrical conventions. By rehearsing in the woods the Mechanicals add to the chaotic nature of the woods that is echoed by the actions of the Lovers nearby. Shakespeare highlights The Mechanicals as simple and awkward by writing their parts in prose form. The absence of rhyme and rhythm contrasts sharply to the music and song of The Fairies.
Puck’s arrival signals the start of further confusion, as he interferes with the “hempen homespuns”. Like the situation between the Court and the Lovers, Oberon and Titania are in love but temporarily thrown into chaos with their argument over the possession of the Indian Boy. In revenge Oberon uses the love potion to make Titania fall in love with Bottom who sports an ass’s head. Oberon’s actions are both foolish and immature, for whilst he succeeds in degrading Titania, he lowers the Fairy Kingdom to the level of the Mechanicals.
Bottoms transformation into an as is apt, as Shakespeare puns upon Bottom’s name; not only acting like an ass, but eventually being transformed into one. Oberon’s interference with the Lovers, whilst made with best intentions causes chaos. The resulting mayhem produces numerous instances of farcical confusion. Whether accidental or not, Puck is to blame for foolishly mistaking Lysander for Demetrius. In this respect the two are foolish, however it is Oberon that reasserts order in the woods by waking Titania, and breaks the confusion among the Lovers.
As the characters wake up they believe the night’s madness has been a dream. Oberon shows Titania the sleeping Bottom. The Lovers remain ignorant of their actions, and wake in love. Shakespeare uses the traditional belief that Midsummer Night induces strange dreams to explain away the Lovers farcical behaviour. As Bottom wakes, he is so staggered by his dream that he intends to perform it as a play. The audience may well ask themselves whether A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is in fact Bottom’s Dream.
Helena and Demetrius may also consider the night a dream for as they wake their confusion is ended. Titania and Hermia on the other hand may feel the evening brought on a nightmare, as Titania looks upon her transformed Lover, and Hermia reflects upon her rejection. The play ends with the performance of the Mechanicals production. Whilst the Mechanicals prove their stupidity with a prologue that spoils the following play, the Court look upon Pyramus and Thisbe and laugh at the characters, not realizing that their actions reflect their own the previous night.
As the play draws to a close the fairies are left on stage with Robin Goodfellow, wishing the audience goodnight. As Puck leaves the stage the audience might wonder whether they can trust his promise to “make amends” given his actions during the play. The Mechanicals are the obvious target for the label of foolishness. However, we must not forget the foolishly ignorant actions of the Court that drove the Lovers into the wood, and to the resulting farcical situation. Nor, can we ignore the foolish behaviour of Titania, the Fairy Queen, and Bottom.
However, if one group had to be singled out as fools, it must be that of Oberon and his henchman Puck, who are ultimately that cause of the chaos. Oberon’s saving grace is that he is the one who reasserts order. Therefore, the mischievous Puck must be held responsible. Shakespeare’s comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream remains one of his most enjoyable works. The play endures because the themes of love and marriage are as relevant to society today as they were in the sixteenth century.