Character Analysis in A Midsummer Night's Dream

Robin Goodfellow (Puck): Puck is a mischievous, humorous, and quick-witted fairy who serves King Oberon. He is one of the most important characters in the play, as he drives the plot forward with his impish pranks.

Nick Bottom: Another humorous character in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is Nick Bottom. Unlike Puck’s subtle humor, Nick Bottom’s is very overt. He has an elevated sense of self, imagining himself as a competent and incredible actor. His overly dramatic and arrogant speeches are a source of great comedy in the play.

Hermia: Hermia is Egeus’s beautiful daughter and the person with whom Lysander and Demetrius have both fallen in love. She is determined, strong, and believes in a woman’s right to choose her future partner.

Helena: Helena is a young woman in love with Demetrius. But when Demetrius was introduced to Hermia, he fell in love with Hermia and left Helena. Helena is one of the more complex characters in the play. She is self-conscious about her looks and constantly worries that characters are playing cruel tricks on her when they compliment her.

Character Analysis Examples in A Midsummer Night's Dream:

Act I - Scene I 3

"Devoutly dotes, dotes in idolatry, Upon this spotted and inconstant man...."   (Act I - Scene I)

Having heard Theseus and Egeus tell Hermia that she must obey her father, Lysander finally speaks up for himself, defending his right to marry Hermia and his own qualities. In order to do that, he makes several observations about Demetrius, pointing out that Demetrius is not faithful nor constant in his affections. To do this, Lysander contrasts Helena’s love with Demetrius’s fickle nature. His claims here provide insight into the morality of these characters in that while they may value romantic love, consistent affection is seen as more desirable.

"Your eyes are lode-stars and your tongue's sweet air..."   (Act I - Scene I)

Helena uses several expressive metaphors here to emphasize the qualities that Hermia has that have made Demetrius fall in love with here. In this case, Hermia’s eyes are called “lode-stars” and her tongue is “sweet air.” Both cases refer to Hermia’s ability to inspire, enchant, or guide, in the sense that her eyes and words have led Demetrius to her. A “lode-star” refers to a guiding star, like the North Star, and the noun “air” here refers to the musical quality of her voice and words.

"Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind; And therefore is wing'd Cupid painted blind.(240) Nor hath Love's mind of any judgment taste;..."   (Act I - Scene I)

In this soliloquy, Helena muses on love and her unfair situation. She is unlucky in her unrequited love, but she is also the character that seems to understand real love the most. She claims here that love is nonjudgemental and comes from understanding rather than lusting after a person. Even though she has this rational perception of love, she still loses confidence after Demetrius's rejection and becomes cynical when she is the subject of both men's desire later in the play.

"This was lofty! Now name the rest of the players...."   (Act I - Scene II)

Bottom’s constant interruptions and self-aggrandizing claims along with the other “wanna-be” actors’ problems and issues with the story reveal them all to be ridiculous, comic, and silly characters. Bottom in particular is portrayed as boastful and foolish, claiming that his acting can make an audience cry and also change the physical environment. His example monologue here further reinforces this portrayal, due to its childish style and rhyme scheme robbing it of any grandiloquence. So, through Bottom and the others, Shakespeare establishes his foundation for parodying the conventions of romance stories as well as the theater.

"And for her sake do I rear up her boy; And for her sake I will not part with him...."   (Act II - Scene I)

Titania’s reasons for wanting to raise the changeling are fair, noble, and rational, but Oberon refuses to see reason. Despite his objections, Oberon’s motives for keeping the changeling are somewhat unclear. He seems to feel the boy is his by right and feels that his wife should obey him without question, due in part to the subservient role of women during Shakespeare’s time. However, recall that at the beginning of the scene, Puck refers to Oberon as “jealous Oberon,” suggesting that Oberon may be jealous that Titania devotes so much time and attention to the child. Regardless, Shakespeare here emphasizes Oberon’s somewhat stubborn and jealous nature.

"Either I mistake your shape and making quite, Or else you are that shrewd and knavish sprite Call'd Robin Goodfellow...."   (Act II - Scene I)

When the fairy identifies Robin Goodfellow, it does not initially say his name, but rather describes him by his attributes, “shrewd and knavish.” The term “knavish” means mischievous and “shrewd” means cunning, immediately characterizing Goodfellow as impish and sly in nature. Note too that even Goodfellow’s name is deceptive and tricky, as a “goodfellow” refers to a pleasant and agreeable ally, which strongly contrasts with a slick knave.

"We cannot fight for love as men may do;(245) We should be woo'd, and were not made to woo. ..."   (Act II - Scene I)

Helena expresses frustration that she must defy her gender role and pursue Demetrius because he will not pursue her. While this can be read as a comedic line, it can also be read as a serious critique of courtship traditions during Shakespeare's time. Women were generally not allowed to choose their husbands or pursue the men that they desired; their fathers would make contractual arrangements with men who were monetarily and socially suited for their daughters, and then the man was allowed to court the woman before wedding her. If we read Helena's "should be" as an indication of obligation or duty rather than a belief, then Helena can be seen as frustrated that she is subject to this unfair gendered system in which she has no control over her fate.

"No, make it two more; let it be written in eight and eight...."   (Act III - Scene I)

Here, the men are arguing about the meter of the play. When Quince says that the play’s prologue should be “written in eight and six,” he is referring to the traditional English ballad meter that featured alternating lines of eight and six syllables rhyming ABAB. Bottom suggests that they write in the style of “eight and eight,” thinking that the extra syllables would make the meter more grand. However, this actually illustrates Bottom’s lack of familiarity with poetic forms, since he does not seem to understand Quince’s reference.

"I'll be an auditor; An actor too perhaps, if I see cause...."   (Act III - Scene I)

Having seen the clowns working on their play, Puck decides to have his own fun by orchestrating a play of his own. This not only reveals his desire to create mischief, but it also provides another example of a character trying to act as a playwright within the play by forcing others to act out roles.

"None of noble sort Would so offend a virgin, and extort A poor soul's patience, all to make you sport...."   (Act III - Scene II)

Helena’s soliloquy demonstrates how she is very aware of the complexity of gender roles. By saying that the men are only men “in show” rather than in reality. Furthermore, she sarcastically calls their behavior “A trim exploit, a manly enterprise,” meaning that their behavior is manipulative and therefore not masculine. Also in this speech, Helena takes on the typical female-gender roles of “gentle lady” and “poor maid,” which is very different from her earlier desire to do away with gender roles so she can be the pursuer or wooer in a romantic relationship. By pointing out these divisions in masculine and feminine behavior, Helena reveals another part of how the supernatural forest influences the identities of the characters.

"When in that moment, so it came to pass, Titania waked, and straightway loved an ass...."   (Act III - Scene II)

Oberon’s hope that Titania would awaken to a “vile” being that she would fall in love with has been fulfilled. Titania’s object of affection is not only a “vile” human being but someone who is now actually part animal. Note that Puck presents this development in his usual singsong rhyme, reminding the viewer again that this is not meant to be a malicious plot, but a playful and light-hearted prank. Note too, that Puck’s perspective on the matter is distanced, much like a playwright or storyteller might be. Puck and Oberon are thus established as the creators of the plot that the audience is watching unfold, and Shakespeare further emphasizes the ways in which one can act as playwright in one’s own life and the lives of others.

"Some true love turn'd, and not a false turn'd true...."   (Act III - Scene II)

Oberon is upset at Puck because he discovers that Puck has applied the love potion to the wrong Athenian. Instead of giving it to Demetrius to bring forth true love and restore balance among the Athenians, he has created a false love in Lysander, which only wreaks more havoc. Oberon’s desire to restore balance by bringing forth true love demonstrates how love, while at times irrational and chaotic, can help to equalize imbalance.

"Opening on Neptune..."   (Act III - Scene II)

Neptune is the Roman god of freshwater and the sea. Neptune here refers to the sea itself, and Oberon is describing his love for the way the sun hits the water and changes its color from “salt green” to “gold.” After Puck claims the night is a kind of liberating time for fun and mischief, Oberon corrects him, saying that they are not dark and sinister creatures who only really come out at night. However, note that we rarely do see Oberon out during the day, and his mischievous plots take place in the night. Although Oberon may like to believe that he is very different from Puck, they, and all supernatural creatures, are actually quite similar in some ways.

"It seems to me That yet we sleep, we dream..."   (Act IV - Scene I)

Demetrius’s asking the others whether or not they are still dreaming presents an interesting opportunity for analysis. The other characters have acknowledged the dream-like nature of their experience, but Demetrius still expresses doubt. A potential explanation is that he remains under the influence of the love potion. Lysander is also under the effects, but they merely serve to keep him in love with his true love, Hermia. Demetrius’s enchantment actually works against his natural affection, potentially causing him to question his reality.

"I know you two are rival enemies;..."   (Act IV - Scene I)

In order to demonstrate how drastically Lysander’s and Demetrius’s behaviors have changed, Shakespeare uses Theseus as an outsider to comment on the changes. Theseus expects them to be enemies, and he expresses surprise at seeing how Oberon’s plans have altered their behavior. Also, Theseus’s questions represent a good model for how anyone should question character development—drawing on past observations and comparing them to new behavior.

"No doubt they rose up early..."   (Act IV - Scene I)

Phrases like this support a portrayal of Theseus as knowledgeable and full of answers about the natural course of events. However, there is another side to this: Such an attitude, coupled with the fact that he won his wife through conquest, reveal him to be a character who always his way and not being challenged. This also reveals his preference for single, rational explanations rather than entertaining any kind of imaginative, or supernatural, explanations.

"When my cue comes, call me, and I will answer. My next is ‘Most fair Pyramus.’..."   (Act IV - Scene I)

Bottom plays the festive clown in Midsummer Night's Dream. He is a "bad actor" meaning that he is an over the top actor that is meant to make absurd the tangled love stories of the main plot. His over confidence and lack of self-awareness make his performing and Titania's love all the more comedic.

"More strange than true. I never may believe These antique fables, nor these fairy toys. Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,(5) Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend More than cool reason ever comprehends. The lunatic, the lover, and the poet, Are of imagination all compact...."   (Act V)

Note also that Theseus contrasts “apprehend” and “comprehends,” further emphasizing the motif of perception by contending that what lunatics see is different from what the rational people with “cool reason” see. This illustrates how Theseus sees logic as more valuable and reliable than empirical knowledge. However consider that rationality was ultimately unsuccessful in resolving the lovers’ discord. Shakespeare thus highlights the limitations of Theseus’ mindset, implying that there is value in the perceptions and practices of the artist even if they seem irrational at times.

"More strange than true. I never may believe These antique fables, nor these fairy toys. Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,(5) Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend More than cool reason ever comprehends. The lunatic, the lover, and the poet, Are of imagination all compact...."   (Act V)

Theseus insists that rather than experiencing something supernatural, love has merely caused the lovers to experience reality in an altered way, which he seems to suggest is natural. He compares “the lunatic, the lover, and the poet,” and states that these are all people whose perception of reality is fantastical. This line echoes a theme that we have seen throughout the play that love has the power to determine one’s perception, but the comparison of the poet to the lunatic is interesting. Shakespeare is a poet himself, and many characters in the play have functioned as playwrights and poets, documenting both the “real” and the “unreal” via art.