The main possible reason for the inclusion of two settings could be to create clearer contrasts of elements and themes within the play for the audience, as the play consists of many contrasts, contradictions and opposites. For example, one of the main contrasts is the time at which the action of the play occurs in each setting. When the characters are in the wood, it is night time. This relates to the moon, therefore representing the Goddess Diana and women.
In the Elizabethan era, when the play was written, women were thought to be below men because they were less intelligent and more irrational, likely due to the Great Chain of Being and the menstrual cycle, which is linked to the moon, and its own inconstant cycle of waxing and waning. During the same era, night time was also associated with fairies, the likes of whom Shakespeare has written into the play in the form of Oberon, Titania and Puck, for example, introducing an added theme of magic realism to the scenes set in the wood, or, as the play was written before this concept, a theme of dreams and chaos.
The fact that the wood is set in night time also contributes to this theme as it hints that the events that happen within it could be just a dream. This theory is supported by Bottoms monologue upon waking after Pucks spell has been lifted. As he comes round he is talking to himself and in his speech says ‘I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream, past the wit of man to say what dream it was’.
This shows that Bottom is unsure as to whether the nights events ( his brief relationship with the fairy Queen, Titania, and his Ass’s head) ever really occurred, or whether they were just a dream. It is also possible to suggest that magic realism could be related to irrational thinking on behalf of females, as the magical beings that are fairies, such as Puck and Titania, are unnatural, out-of-the-ordinary and the idea of their existence is perhaps somewhat far fetched and unbelievable. It is almost as if they are a figure of the imagination.
In relation to the irrational representations from the night and the moon, the actions and behaviours of the characters in the wood are much more animal-like, as they appear to follow their instincts more and reveal the true personalities and characteristics that they would normally repress when in Athens. This is another of the contrasts between the two settings. For example, when in Athens, Hermia is generally assertive but polite at the same time, however in the wood she loses all ‘ladylike’ mannerisms and tries to attack Helena, as well as insulting her with phrases such as ‘O me, you juggler, you canker-blossom, you thief of love’.
These kinds of insults do not comply with the law and order in place in Athens, or the Great Chain of Being or the Social hierarchy. Another example of change in characters behaviour is Lysander. Whilst ‘wooing’ Hermia in Athens, he acts the gentleman, however once he and Hermia have run away to the wood, his attitude towards their relationship changes, as instead of focusing on the ‘true love’ he shares with Hermia, he tries to introduce a physical side to their relationship before they marry.
Hermia refuses, giving her power and control over the situation, which indicates a role reversal between male and female, related to the social hierarchy found in Athens and which was in place during the Elizabethan Era. These changes in behaviour could have been included by Shakespeare to show more contradictions and opposites, as the characters identities at the beginning of the play (in Athens) are later contradicted and become the opposite once they enter the wood.
For instance, a more extreme example would be how Demetrius goes from despising Helena to falling in love with her by the end of the storyline, under the influence of Oberon’s magic flower after his brief spell in he wood. Athens is the opposite of the wood in all of these aspects. Athens is set in the daytime, relating to the sun and Sun God and therefore men, who were seen as more important, logical, intelligent and reasonable than women in Elizabethan times. This is reflected in the behaviour of the plays characters when they are in Athens.
They are much more polite and abide by rules and the social hierarchy, i. . men being higher than women, as apposed to when they are in the wood, where either the women have power or both sexes are equal. The fact that Athens is a city could represent civilisation, which there appears to be a significant lack of in the wood in comparison to the amount of mischief and magical events. It also makes the setting of Athens more real and naturalistic, contrasting with the magic realism found in the wood’s scenes. Love is a largely important theme in Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Nights Dream’, however it is contrasted and portrayed differently both in and by the two different locations/settings.
In Athens, it appears to be rather unimportant; as Egeus, Hermia’s father, ignores the fact that Hermia is in love with Lysander and instead arranges for her to marry Demetrius. This could also indicate that love is more controlled in the Athens setting, particularly by those with a higher social status, such as Theseus or Egeus, and the characters true feelings are repressed against their will, as they abide by the rules of their society instead of following their own hearts and emotions.
On the other hand, once in the wood, the characters’ irrationality, true feelings, and the strength of those emotions are shown. For example, we see how much Helena truly is in love with Demetrius by the way she eagerly pursues him through the wood and by the way she says things such as ‘Use me but as your spaniel, spurn me, strike me, neglect me, lose me’. This shows that Helena’s feelings for Demetrius are so strong that she is even willing to let him use and treat her as his dog.
However, Helena only expresses her feelings in this way in the wood, as in Athens, like Hermia, she is upholding a more civilised and ladylike persona. Because the characters are not holding back their emotions, this could show that they are following their instincts and in a way acting more irrationally, like animals, meaning they are lower down in the social hierarchy or Great Chain of Being than they would normally be.
This is because they are acting like they are below their original status, for example, the males, who are usually logical and intelligent are becoming irrational and acting upon emotion, likening them to women and bringing them down by a social level in the Elizabethan Hierarchy. Lust and passion are highlighted more in the scenes set in the wood as apposed to the more gentle, somewhat rational feelings of true love, which actually shows a contrast within the wood itself, as apposed to a contrast between the wood and Athens, as the characters feel that they love one another, but pursue their lust and passion as a way of expressing it.
Referring back to the social hierarchy, it is possible to suggest that it imposes many restrictions for the characters when in Athens, not only for the lovers, but also for Bottom and his companions, one of which is Quince, who says ‘But masters, here are your parts, and I am to entreat you, request you, and desire you, to con them by tomorrow night; and meet me in the palace wood, a mile without the town, by moonlight; there will we rehearse.
For if we meet in the city, we shall be dogged with company, and our devices known’. This suggests that Bottom and ‘The Mechanicals’, as they are often known, decide to rehearse in the wood as it is more peaceful and they have more freedom, privacy and space, etc. This is likely due to the fact that there are no rules in the wood and thanks to soothing elements such as the moon and night time, fairies and magic realism, it is also a more relaxed setting for the characters.
Because it is so relaxed it is possible to suggest that it also provides some relief for the characters, because, as mentioned before, they are able to express themselves freely without breaking any rules or hierarchies as they would when in Athens. The theory that Shakespeare included the two settings of the Wood and Athens as a portrayal of opposites in the play is supported by his use of language throughout the text. Shakespeare has written in contradictory lines such as ‘tedious brief scene’ and ‘That is hot ice and wondrous strange snow!
How shall we find the concord of this discord? ‘. These are all oxymorons, as they contradict themselves and therefore make very little logical sense. Other examples of oxymorons in the play would be ‘sweet thunder’, ‘very tragical mirth’ and the opening to the performance at Theseus’s and Hippolyta’s wedding by The Mechanicals, in which Quince, as the prologue, recites a speech that consists almost entirely of oxymorons, although only accidentally.
Shakespeare has used the technique of oxymorons to represent the theme of opposites by introducing the theme into the language as well as the plots, settings a characters, adding depth to the theme. Another use of language Shakespeare has incorporated that separates the two settings is the inclusion of poetry. Shakespeare has incorporated the use of iambic pentameter and prose in the characters in speech in Athens, as the dialogue is much more realistic, however there is a greater variety of poetic language when the characters first enter the wood.
The dialogue spoken by the characters when in the wood is much more poetic in comparison to the dialogue used when in Athens. Demetrius’s line ‘O why rebuke you him that loves you so? Lay breath so bitter on your bitter foe’ is an example of a rhyming couplet that occurs in the dialogue spoken in the wood. Another example of a rhyming couplet used in the wood is Lysanders line ‘ One turf shall serve as pillow for us both, one heart, one bed, two bosoms, and one troth. ‘
When he is in Athens, Demetrius’s language is prose, much more straightforward and does not rhyme much. Quotes such as ‘Relent, sweet Hermia: and, Lysander, yield thy crazed title to my certain right’ suggest that this is true, as this is more like normal speech, or prose, as apposed to rhyming or rhythmic verse. People do not normally speak in rhyme in everyday life, so the element of poetic speech supports the way opposites, magic realism and extraordinary events, etc, are portrayed throughout Shakespeare’s play.
With the inclusion of all these aspects, it is as if Shakespeare is suggesting the meeting or co-existence of the two settings in everyday life, and that one cannot exist without the other, otherwise there would be an imbalance. This idea is best shown by the relationship between Hippolyta and Theseus. Hippolyta represents everything mentioned associated with women and the wood (chaos, mystery, irrationality, etc), whereas Theseus is the opposite, as he represents all that is associated with men and Athens (logic, reason, etc).
Despite the two being complete opposites; they reach a compromise that allows their relationship to work. This is shown, for example, when Theseus and Hippolyta are hunting in the wood before discovering the Athenian lovers. Back then, hunting would have been seen as a masculine activity; however Hippolyta is hunting alongside Theseus, showing that although he sees himself as the stronger half of the relationship, as he prefers himself to be, he does not completely suppress Hippolyta and her Amazonian ways. This compromise creates a balance in the relationship and prevents conflict.
Similarly, there are ‘Yin and Yang’ elements within the play, portrayed by the characters’ changes in behaviour. The way the characters alter from polite and reasonable to erratic and irrational shows that there are two sides to their personalities and that even though they are well behaved in Athens, they still have a ‘wild’ side to their personality, which is hidden, but still there. The ‘Yin and Yang’ element is also shown at the end of the play when Oberon, Titania and the rest of the fairies enter Athens to give their blessings.
This shows the two settings, each of extreme opposites, merging together into one. This is also portrayed by Theseus and Hippolyta hunting in the woods at the end of the play. The language spoken by Oberon and Titania whilst in Athens consists of rhyming couplets. This brings an element of the wood into Athens, just as the lovers running away brought an element of Athens into the wood. This displays a ‘Yin and Yang’ style mix. Shakespeare could be suggesting that everyone in real life is the same, also.
We all have a reasonable side combined with a ‘wild, emotional side’, but because of our society, in any era, aspects of that side of our personalities must be repressed or hidden in order to prevent chaos; however, if we didn’t have these aspects, we wouldn’t really be human. Also, if we are not allowed to express our ‘wild side’, at least once in a while, there could be negative consequences. Shakespeare communicates this idea or concept to the audience effectively through the two settings of Athens and the Wood and also the characters in the play that link them together.