Themes in A Midsummer Night's Dream

Love as Irrational: One of the most prominent themes explored in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the fickle and irrational nature of love, which Shakespeare illustrates in a witty and humorous way. Characters fall in and out of love with one another quickly and randomly, sometimes due to love potions and sometimes not. Until the end, couples are unbalanced and mismatched, and many tears and angry fights are had until all is made well—just as it was made wrong—through supernatural interference.

Dreams as Explanations for Skewed Reality: The fairies and other supernatural beings constantly toy with characters’ emotions and rationality, often leading characters to wonder whether they are experiencing reality or are stuck in a dream. There are several layers of reality within the play, as several plot lines play out parallel to and interfering with one another. For example, due to the performance of a play within a play, the audience experiences multiple fictions at the same time: Shakespeare’s play itself, and the laughable production of Pyramus and Thisbe that the laborers put on. At the end of the play, Puck speaks to this theme by suggesting that the audience think of the play as a dream.

Themes Examples in A Midsummer Night's Dream:

Act I - Scene I 8

"The course of true love never did run smooth..."   (Act I - Scene I)

The two lovers worry about their situation after the others leave, and Lysander points out that their situation, while not ideal, is not unusual, and many lovers have faced similar troubles. Lysander’s language suggests his familiarity with such situations, with “Ay me” expressing a strong sense of despair while “for aught” emphatically refers to everyone as in “for all” or “in all.” Such expressions allow him to make a grand claim about their situation, but he appears to temper their situation rather than inflate it. It is known that Shakespeare was writing this play at the same time as Romeo and Juliet, and Lysander’s claim situates A Midsummer Night’s Dream within the context of all romantic stories and “fated lovers.”

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

In order to make his point about love, Lysander employs several key word choices here. The word “dote” is repeated with increasing intensity to show the depth of Helena’s love for Demetrius, which Lysander depicts as too devout. Meanwhile Lysander calls Demetrius “spotted,” or impure, and “inconstant” because he has changed his mind about whom he loves. Therefore, Lysander not only depicts Demetrius negatively, but he also appears to mock Helena’s affection because it is too devout. For him, it seems, love and romance must exist somewhere between these two extremes.

"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.

"Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind; And therefore is wing'd Cupid painted blind...."   (Act I - Scene I)

The eye imagery here and the focus on blindness is important. Since Cupid is “painted blind,” this love god represents action based on emotion rather than vision. However, note how later in the play many characters will experience love through seeing, even though that seeing will be affected by outside forces. Regardless, Helena’s claim here that vision is not important in the affairs of love is simultaneously accurate and ironic. As we’ll see, Shakespeare uses literal sight as the foundation for the metaphorical blindness that love can create.

"To you your father should be as a god;..."   (Act I - Scene I)

A Midsummer Night’s Dream takes place in a time in which Athenian law forced women to marry whomever their fathers chose, and they could be executed for disobeying. When Theseus compares Egeus’s authority to that of a “god,” Shakespeare introduces the theme of male dominance in disputes between men and women. Here, men are given the legal right to make decisions for women in all aspects of their lives. Throughout the play, pay attention to the various ways in which women are forced into subservient positions and denied agency and how such actions by these women play into the expected gender roles during Shakespeare’s time.

"The course of true love never did run smooth;..."   (Act I - Scene I)

In one of the most famous and quotable lines from this play Lysander elevates his love to the status of famous doomed romances and historical "star-crossed" lovers. Ironically, he uses this comparison to reassure Hermia that hope is not lost. Notice that in comparing their love to history, Lysander is able to claim that their love is "true love." This could set up Hermia and Lysander to be tragic characters; however, these lines are spoken within a comedy making Lysander's claims to tragic, ill-fated love not as serious as they are intended.

"War, death, or sickness, did lay siege to it, Making it momentany as a sound,(145) Swift as a shadow, short as any dream, Brief as the lightning in the collied night..."   (Act I - Scene I)

"Swift as a shadow" comes from a 12th-century proverb "to flee like a shadow." Lysander uses this metaphor to highlight the brevity of love and its ephemeral nature. Hermia complains that the biggest obstacle to love is choice. But Lysander notes that the forces of nature often conspire against love even if one gets to choose, and death, war, or sickness cut it short. These lines begin the play in a more dramatic tone than one would expect from a comedy. There is a darker theme that runs throughout the play and underscores the lighter romantic themes and tropes. This darker theme questions the truth and value of a love that is so fickle it can be drawn from perception and so ephemeral that it can change its object frequently over the course of this short play.

"Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind; And therefore is wing'd Cupid painted blind...."   (Act I - Scene I)

Helena's soliloquy underscores a major theme within this play: the connection between love and perception. Helena notes that she is just as beautiful as Hermia, but does not appear so to Demetrius because love colors his perception. The relationship between love and eyesight continue to develop throughout the rest of the play as Puck's love potion causes the characters to fall in love by sight. The play continues to explore whether or not love comes from the heart or from the eye after the question is posed within this speech.

"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.

"A lover, that kills himself most gallant for love...."   (Act I - Scene II)

Quince tells everyone that this play is about lovers who die for love, which is almost the exact same situation that Lysander and Hermia are facing. This not only reinforces the play-within-a-play theme by parodying the main stories events, but it also extends to a more common romance trope that true love is worth dying for.

"Marry, our play is, The Most Lamentable Comedy and Most Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisbe...."   (Act I - Scene II)

By incorporating these laborers and their desire to put on a performance, Shakespeare introduces the theme of a play within a play, which has several important functions in A Midsummer Night’s Dream: the laborers’ mistakes and attempts to put on a show introduce more humorous strains into the tale, Shakespeare is able to comment more broadly on the nature of art and the theater, and the laborers’ play will parody many of the main events in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, keeping the tone light and comical.

"I know a bank where the wild thyme blows, Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,(255) Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine, With sweet musk-roses, and with eglantine; There sleeps Titania sometime of the night, Lull'd in these flowers with dances and delight; And there the snake throws her enamell'd skin,(260) Weed wide enough to wrap a fairy in;..."   (Act II - Scene I)

Notice the vivid imagery of the wild plants and flowers, and that the speech is in rhyming couplets. The effect of these clever details is that Oberon’s eloquent speech sounds almost hypnotizing and entrancing, similar to the way the flower’s enchantment may affect the lovers. However, notice the contrast between this dreamy language and the somewhat dark and sinister tone that the imagery of the snake carries, especially since the next line features a kind of entrapment. Oberon’s speech illustrates the deceptiveness of the forest and of love in general; both may seem wonderful on the surface, but their enchantment can make one blind to their darker aspects.

"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)

While this introduction to the two characters may not seem particularly special, the way the fairy and Robin Goodfellow reveal themselves to one another introduces a theme revolving around deception and the forest as a place where identities can change. For example, the fairy identifies Robin Goodfellow in an odd way by saying “Either I mistake your shape” and then following that with descriptions that connote deception. The interaction between these two therefore illustrate that deception and confusion are normal in this magical area, which stands in stark contrast to the environment from the first scene.

"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.

"Lie further off, in human modesty; Such separation as may well be said Becomes a virtuous bachelor and a maid,(60)..."   (Act II - Scene II)

Hermia says that she and Lysander should lay further apart to be “virtuous,” and behave according to societal expectations. However, recall that women during Shakespeare’s time were expected to adhere to a different set of social rules regarding chastity and marriage than men were. While it was considered respectful for men to remain chaste until marriage, it certainly was not expected in the same way that it was for women, and men did not face the same consequences of social ridicule or ruin for premarital sex that women did.

"When thou wakest, it is thy dear. Wake when some vile thing is near.(35)..."   (Act II - Scene II)

Oberon’s magical scheme in a sense places him in the role of playwright, thus further emphasizing the theme of the play within a play. As the flower’s potion ensures that the being that is most “near” to Titania will become her “dear,” her love is determined by proximity rather than romance. The rhyming of “near” and “dear” is also important as it produces a playful tone rather than one of malice, illustrating that Oberon’s plot against Titania is not evil in nature, but more of an impish prank or game.

"Thou shalt remain here whether thou wilt or no. ..."   (Act III - Scene I)

Titania, under the influence of Oberon’s love juice, has declared her love for the ass-headed Bottom. Her declaration here also introduces a negative aspect of love: jealousy. Since Titania is the more powerful and a jealous lover, she attempts to use her power to completely overpower Bottom’s own wishes so that she can have complete control over her love object.

"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.

"And yet, to say the truth, reason and love keep(135) little company together now-a-days...."   (Act III - Scene I)

Bottom, still full of self-importance, tells Titania that it doesn’t really make any logical sense for her to love him. His observation that reason and love often have little to do with one another actually has some wisdom to it: the irrational nature of love is a pervasive theme throughout the play.

"When thou wakest, Thou takest True delight..."   (Act III - Scene II)

Puck adheres to Oberon’s wishes and uses his magic to make sure that love between the four humans is in balance. Puck’s supernatural trickery further reveals itself here as he is able to speak as any character and make them fall asleep. Notice though, that rather than removing the effects of the love potion on Lysander himself, Oberon has Puck use the love potion again. This ensures that the love will happen rather than leaving anything up to chance, which further underscores Oberon’s role as playwright because of his preference for using plot devices like the love potion.

"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.

"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)

Now that Puck has attempted to correct his mistake, Helena is pursued by Lysander and Demetrius, throwing the situation into disarray. Her soliloquy here drastically points out distinctions between expected forms of behavior: She says that the men’s actions do her “injury” and “mock” her because, she claims, they are acting “in show” and “merriment.” While she does point out the falsehood of their actions, she cannot see that they are acting out the roles given them by the love potion. Her language furthermore supports the way that Oberon and Puck have played playwright in the tale by staging this romance.

"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.

"Follow! Nay, I'll go with thee, cheek by jowl...."   (Act III - Scene II)

The rivalry between Lysander and Demetrius over Helena has escalated quickly, prompting the men to depart for a duel in the woods. Throughout the play characters have emphasized the many ways in which love can cause emotional distress, but here we see that love has the ability to cause physical pain and suffering as well. Shakespeare again highlights the potentially destructive side of love.

"Lord, what fools these mortals be!..."   (Act III - Scene II)

Puck's line is ironic because Puck's love potion, which made Lysander and Demetrius fall in love with Helena, is the reason these mortals are acting so foolish. Puck's obvious delight and sense of pride in the mischief he has created creates an interesting presentation of love within this romance. Puck seems to to hold these mortals in contempt because they becomes foolish and weak when they are in love. While most Shakespearian dramas and comedies trumpet the importance of love and relationships, Puck, one of the most memorable and beloved characters in this play, openly mocks love and denies its importance.

"I will get Peter Quince to write a ballad of this dream. It shall be call'd ‘Bottom's Dream,’ because it hath no bottom; and I will sing it in the latter end of a play, before the Duke...."   (Act IV - Scene I)

Bottom’s lines here are also ironic in that Shakespeare has actually succeeded in describing the events of the “dream” by writing the play itself. Bottom’s hopes that the contents of the dream can help inspire Quince’s ballad, reminds the audience of this very irony. Thus, Shakespeare highlights the way in which art can help people to comprehend an event that might be otherwise difficult to fathom. Bottom’s dream can be translated into art that is accessible for others to better understand.

"I will get Peter Quince to write a ballad of this dream. It shall be call'd ‘Bottom's Dream,’ because it hath no bottom; and I will sing it in the latter end of a play, before the Duke...."   (Act IV - Scene I)

When Bottom awakens, he assumes that the entire night has been a dream, but he explains that he finds it difficult to articulate it. He says that describing the dream is “past the wit of man,” meaning that the human mind does not have the capacity to do so. He says that to successfully communicate the dream, a human would have to be “but an ass” or “a patched fool” (both of which Bottom has been.) Further, Bottom repeats the term “methought,” again underscoring that he is uncertain of his experiences and his descriptions of them. This further associates the forest with dreams and unreality that the human mind is incapable of fully comprehending and describing.

"May all to Athens back again repair, And think no more of this night's accidents But as the fierce vexation of a dream. But first I will release the fairy queen...."   (Act IV - Scene I)

Notice here that Oberon hopes that the characters will think of their experiences in the forest merely “as the fierce vexation of a dream.” He thus associates the woods with nighttime and dreaming, and Athens with daytime and “reality.” The events that have taken place in the dark forest are to be seen as ephemeral and “unreal”—mere dreams that will not have a lasting effect on the lives of the characters. However, note that it is precisely these magical and “unreal” events that have finally untangled the actual romantic mess in the play, in a way that only something supernatural could. Shakespeare again blurs the line between reality and dreams.

"May all to Athens back again repair, And think no more of this night's accidents But as the fierce vexation of a dream. But first I will release the fairy queen...."   (Act IV - Scene I)

Oberon tells Puck to change Bottom’s head back to normal so that the characters can all leave the forest. Consider that the forest is associated with all things supernatural and mystical, and a return to the city thus symbolizes a return to the natural order. We can see this emphasized in Oberon’s use of the term “repair” here, suggesting the restoration of normalcy after complete disarray. Oberon’s strict contrasting of the forest and the city characterizes the events that have taken place in the woods as temporary; they will be of little significance to the rest of the characters’ lives.

"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.

"Not a mouse Shall disturb this hallow'd house. I am sent with broom before, To sweep the dust behind the door...."   (Act V)

Puck’s speech also alludes to the physical space of a theater. After A Midsummer Night’s Dream has ended, all will actually be silent, and the theatre will have to be cleaned and swept with a “broom.” Here, Puck essentially verifies that he has been helping Oberon to stage this play from the beginning. Shakespeare thus illustrates the ephemeral nature of theatre; the performance must eventually come to an end, at which point the theatre will return to the “hallow’d house” it was, awaiting the next performance.

"Not a mouse Shall disturb this hallow'd house. I am sent with broom before, To sweep the dust behind the door...."   (Act V)

Puck acts as it the play is actually real and promises to clean up anything that remains from the play. His speech here not only shows how all that has happened will soon fade into the past, but also that the play will leave its mark on the audience. This emphasis on the real and the unreal again highlights the potential of theatre: to find common ground between reality and the imaginary, wherein the actors, the characters, and the audience can all coexist.

"You, ladies, you, whose gentle hearts do fear The smallest monstrous mouse that creeps on floor, May now, perchance, both quake and tremble here, When lion rough in wildest rage doth roar.(225)..."   (Act V)

Consider that although this speech is comical due to Snug’s silly assumption that the audience will be unable to distinguish reality from make believe, the characters of A Midsummer Night’s Dream have actually struggled to distinguish between the two throughout the play. Characters have doubted their experiences in the forest, unsure of whether they were real or simply very vivid dreams. So while Snug’s speech can seem ridiculous, it also underscores that the line between reality and illusion may not be quite so easily defined. Furthermore, Snug’s worries also highlight the real magic of good theatre—it has the incredible potential to feel real even while the audience knows that it is not.

"You, ladies, you, whose gentle hearts do fear The smallest monstrous mouse that creeps on floor, May now, perchance, both quake and tremble here, When lion rough in wildest rage doth roar.(225)..."   (Act V)

Snug and the other laborers assume that the “ladies” in the audience will be frightened by his character, meaning that they will think he is an actual lion rather than a fictional one. Snug’s speech illustrates the way in which the actors constantly misunderstand the viewer’s experience of theatre. The scene is comical because the actors constantly “break the fourth wall” (address the audience directly, pulling them out of the fictional world of the play). No audience member would really believe that the Snug was really a lion; they know that they are watching a performance. His speech functions as an amusing breach of theatrical conventions.

"And in the modesty of fearful duty I read as much as from the rattling tongue Of saucy and audacious eloquence. Love, therefore, and tongue-tied simplicity(110) In least speak most to my capacity...."   (Act V)

The actors in Quince’s play have often worried that Theseus would not be able to see that they are actually acting, implying that they think themselves highly skilled actors. We know this is a silly concern, because the actors are actually quite terrible. Here, Theseus says that he is always able to see the real behind the act, and he extends the notion of acting into day-to-day life. Theseus suggests that people are essentially actors in their own lives, and that life is itself a play in a sense.

"All for your delight We are not here...."   (Act V)

The performance of the laborers parallels Shakespeare’s performance of the lovers in the woods with the fairies. Quince’s prologue provides the exposition and rhythm, and the audience (Theseus, et al) laugh at the performance much in the same way that the fairies laughed at the “performance” of the lovers in the forest. This parallel emphasizes the theme of play within a play.

"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.