Fowler, Robert. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. c.1900.
- Play title: A Midsummer Night’s Dream
- Author: William Shakespeare
- First published: 1600 (quarto format)
- Page count: 47
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of Shakespeare’s most celebrated comedies. The play has entertained audiences for centuries with its imaginative content and convoluted plot.
Theseus, who is the King of Athens is soon to marry Hippolyta, formerly Queen of the Amazons. Prior to their grand nuptials, a nobleman named Egeus calls on the king to enforce Athenian law and thereby compel his daughter Hermia to marry Demetrius (whom she does not love) instead of Lysander (whom she does love). As a consequence, Hermia and Lysander flee to the wood of Athens as part of their romantic plan to elope. Helena, who is Hermia’s closest friend but also Demetrius’s former love, cynically tells him of the secret plan and soon all four young people are in the wood. The wood represents a parallel, magical world, inhabited as it is by Oberon and Titania, the King and Queen of the fairies, along with Robin Goodfellow (Puck). Due to a fairyland dispute, Oberon is unhappy with Titania. Therefore, Oberon plans to put “love juice” (3.2.39) on Titania’s eyes which will cause her to fall in love with the first thing she sees upon awakening, “Be it ounce, or cat, or bear, /Pard, or boar with bristled hair” (2.2.36-37), thereby precipitating an embarrassing situation for her! The Fairy King tasks Robin with placing the same concoction on the eyes of one of the young men but for the benevolent reason of fixing a broken love. Unfortunately, Robin chooses the wrong young man, thus changing the course of love and causing much consternation. Within the space of one eventful night, all the lovers find harmony anew and the play concludes with three, happy marriages. The major themes of this work are dreams, imagination, love, betrayal, and theatre.
Ways to access the text: reading/listening/watching
If you would like to read the play online, then The Folger Shakespeare website is an excellent option. The play is also available via Project Gutenberg and the Open Library.
There are several audiobook versions, for example a radio play from BBC Radio 3 entitled “A Midsummer Night’s Dream 1999” which is available on the Internet Archive. An alternative version from the same website is a Caedmon Records recording from 1964 starring Paul Scofield, simply entitled, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
Film adaptations of A Midsummer Night’s Dream include the 1968 version starring Helen Mirren and directed by Peter Hall, and the 1999 version starring Michelle Pfeiffer, directed by Michael Hoffman. There is also a National Theatre Live production of the play from 2019 with a runtime of 3 hours. Directed by Nicholas Hytner and Ross MacGibbon, this version stars Gwendoline Christie.
Why read/watch/listen to A Midsummer Night’s Dream?
Dominant or resistant reading.
Shakespeare’s famous play with its tangled love affairs and meddling fairies may be read in quite contrasting ways. The play is a comedy in the traditional sense which means it ends with marriage and contains many light-hearted, humorous scenes. One may accordingly classify the play as undemanding, frivolous entertainment, albeit it of Shakespeare’s high standards. Alternatively, the events of the story, most especially the happenings in the wood of Athens may be interpreted as menacing and shadowy. In The Norton Shakespeare, Brett Gambo makes the observation that, “Productions face a challenge in exploring the play’s darker aspects, particularly the dissension and sexual aggression underlying its principal relationships, without destroying the comedy” (1047). In the written text, Shakespeare effortlessly combines the light and dark tones of the story but it is more difficult for a reader to find a correspondingly balanced interpretation so most people will fall into one of two reading approaches– reading the play as a magical tale of gossamer winged fairies and true love, or a more sinister tale of sordid happenings in a dark wood on a strange night. The second reading approach falls into the category of resistant reading since it diverges from Shakespeare’s comedic aims. An awareness of both possibilities makes the play more intriguing.
Shakespeare accomplishes an imaginative feat in his depiction of the Fairy Kingdom. One is presented with a tempestuous, royal couple and various fairy attendants. Then, adding to the fantastical scene is Robin Goodfellow who is not a fairy at all, but a trickster of English myth. Though all familiar figures, Shakespeare makes considerable alterations to the traditional folklore he is referencing. The fairies were formerly malevolent beings whom one would assiduously avoid, especially if met at night time, but Shakespeare transforms them into playful and kindly, supernatural imps. Even so, the transformation is somehow flawed and maybe deliberately so, since the fairies stubbornly retain the old aura of danger and continue to unsettle us at times. For example, Bottom who is a workman, loses his human head and is given an ass’s upon the Fairy King’s orders. One may surmise that the fairies are still up to considerable mischief!
Correcting Love’s Sometimes Wayward Path.
“OBERON, [to Robin]
What hast thou done? Thou hast mistaken quite
And laid the love juice on some true-love’s sight.
Of thy misprision [mistake] must perforce ensue
Some true-love turned, and not a false turned true.”(A Midsummer Night’s Dream 3.2.88-91)
William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a self-proclaimed dream sequence. The theme of dreaming is initiated with Hippolyta’s words on her upcoming nuptials, “Four nights will quickly dream away the time” (1.1.8) and concludes with Robin Goodfellow’s suggestion that the audience have indeed slumbered and that all was merely “An idle theme, no more yielding but a dream” (5.1.413). Due to the fantastical nature of the events depicted, it is plausible that all events which take place in the wood may be categorized as dream material. King Theseus certainly gives no credence to the young lovers’ stories after they emerge from the wood, saying, “More strange than true. I never may believe / These antique fables nor these fairy toys. /Lovers and madmen have such seething brains” (5.1.2-4). Framing the events in the wood as dream, or even reverie, allows for a broader, looser interpretation of the work.
The opening quote is King Oberon’s chastisement of Robin regarding the latter’s misapplication of the fairies’ magical concoction of “love juice” (3.2.39). Demetrius and Lysander are evidently so alike as to make little difference to the feckless Robin. Oberon is upset because he wished to reignite Demetrius’s old love for Helena having seen the couple squabbling in the wood. Had Robin performed the task correctly then it would also have solved the associated problem of Hermia’s enforced marriage to Demetrius now demanded by her father. The Fairy King’s reference to ‘some true love turned’ suggests that the fairies and their ‘love juice,’ like Cupid and his arrow, have total agency over the lovers’ romantic choices. Under the cover of darkness in a strange wood, the lovers first lose but then miraculously rediscover their fated partners, all as in a dream and all in one night. The fairies are credited with the happy resolution. This essay will delve into what lies behind the veil of magic that Shakespeare weaves in the wood of Athens. The playwright’s success rests not solely with his depiction of the Fairy Kingdom and its magical powers but also in how he presents us with a complex web of dream material.
When an audience is watching a play then a suspension of disbelief is a normal reaction since it facilitates unhindered enjoyment of the performance. Therefore, one does not pick holes in an outrageous plot, one becomes fully invested in the story. Midsummer Night (abbrev.) presents us with a fantastical and engrossing tale but there are additional reasons, beyond a desire for entertainment, which trick us into our easy acceptance and subsequent transportation into the dramatic dreamscape. For instance, the Bard incorporated both English folklore and Ovidian mythology into this celebrated comedy. Mary Ellen Lamb quotes folklore specialist Ruth Bottigheimer who described fairy tales as having, “the deepest and most enduring childhood impressions” (304). These impressions are subsequently woven into our own dreams whose textures are thereby enriched with familiar figures and latent meanings. When presented with a story rich in fairy tale, folklore, or mythological associations then we connect more intuitively with the experience. In the case of Midsummer Night, one quickly appreciates that there is much hidden within the dream. Sigmund Freud mused over the raw material of dreams and concluded that, “dream interpretation must seek a closer union with the rich material of poetry, myth, and popular idiom” (2). The central mystery of Shakespeare’s play, shrouded by a night of dreams, is how the four young lovers return to their fated loves. The answer rests in the overlapping dreams of the young lovers which constitute the main action of the play. Though one is loath to disrupt something as ephemeral as a dream, it is the only manner by which to extract the dream’s secrets.
Freud wrote that the people of ancient times “took it for granted that dreams were related to the world of the supernatural beings in whom they believed, and that they brought inspirations from the gods and demons” (1). This concept of guidance/knowledge/influence being cloaked in a dream is tacitly explored in Midsummer Night. For example, Queen Titania claims her tempestuous row with Oberon has brought a “progeny of evils” (2.1.115) into the mortal world. This intrusion of influence from the land of the fairies may broadly be explained in the words of Ronald F. Miller who proposes, “It is not so much the fairies per se as the mystery of the fairies – the very aura of evanescence and ambiguity surrounding their life on stage – that points to a mysteriousness in our own existence, and specifically in such ambivalent earthly matters as love, luck, imagination, and even fate” (255). In the context of the play, we need not doubt that Titania’s Kingdom has more than metaphysical power given that the lovers’ lives transform in the wood and remain altered even when normal life resumes. While Miller presents an analogy between the mystery of the fairies and the mysteries of life, Freud allows one to see the figures in one’s dreams as actual messengers and this proves more fruitful for an analysis of Midsummer Night. When one focuses on the workings of dreams then the influences of mythology and folklore may be detected behind the projected dream images and therefore linked to the salient messages for the young lovers.
Dreams are such an unforgiving medium to intruders because dreams are often peculiar, haunting, broken rather than free-flowing, and frequently illogical. A method of translation is required because dreams rarely carry their meaning at the easily understandable, surface level. There is also an intrinsic complication, a safety-mechanism so to speak, which Freud explained when he wrote that we should, “assume that in every human being there exist, as the primary cause of dream-formation, two psychic forces (tendencies or systems), one of which forms the wish expressed by the dream, while the other exercises a censorship over this dream-wish, thereby enforcing on it a distortion” (51). To reverse the distortion and discover the hidden meanings of the young lovers’ dreams, one needs to delve into and interrogate several different aspects of the play. As architect of the dreamscape, Shakespeare litters the scene with clues. The setting is an appropriate starting point, given that the wood of Athens represents a parallel world, the ‘green world,’ where problems fortuitously evaporate like a mist in the morning sun.
The young lovers’ daring move from city to woodland is quite symbolic. Theseus’s total dominance in Athens communicates a society of traditions, conventions, and restrictions, firmly held in place by the rule of law. Hermia seeks the freedom to marry her true love and therefore she needs to escape from her authoritarian father Egeus who just secured the support of Theseus. In eloping to the wood of Athens, the lovers’ tale mirrors that of Pyramus and Thisbe who are the rebellious and tragic young lovers in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. This tale holds great prominence in Midsummer Night. Robin speaks of how the “rude mechanical” (3.2.9) aka unsophisticated, amateur actors will perform the story of Pyramus and Thisbe for Theseus’s wedding. However, the play within a play is allocated no particular significance beyond its unintentionally comedic presentation, thanks to the unskilled acting. One may recognize this as the first ‘distortion’ (to use Freud’s term) of dream content. Pyramus and Thisbe’s story is dark and emotive. As seems fitting, Shakespeare never depicts the wood of Athens as a safe refuge, instead, the forest setting at night is a visually distorted world of shadows and wild beasts. This is similar to the scene Ovid portrays when Thisbe encounters, “a lioness, fresh from the kill, her slavering jaws dripping with the blood of her victims” (96). The wood of Athens holds the promise of freedom, yet it is undeniably a place of danger too. Once the youths tread into the wilderness, beyond the safety of the city, what is real is sometimes undecipherable from the unreal on account of the youths’ fired-up imaginations. Theseus insightfully remarks, “How easy is a bush supposed a bear” (5.1.22). Nevertheless, a real bear may still lurk nearby! One senses a fine line in the play between the humour of the woodland scenes and hints at darker happenings. To seek love in the way these various lovers do, is simultaneously to court danger. The remote, wooded setting and reference to Pyramus and Thisbe alert one to physical danger and also the dangers of unstable meanings. An understanding that the setting doubles as a dreamscape renders the intense experiences and confused messages more accessible.
The forest is also the realm of Oberon and Titania, the “fairies, that do run / By the triple Hecate’s team / From the presence of the sun, / Following darkness like a dream” (5.1.400-403). It is here that the fairies dance in circles, while their queen sleeps with a mortal man. It is apparent that the rules of convention have faded away upon entering the forest. When Oberon and Titania argue then there are revelations of numerous torrid, loves affairs. It is in this new atmosphere of freedom that the burgeoning, sexual appetites of the young men are alluded to in several exchanges, for example when Helena tests Demetrius’s patience and he retaliates by threatening, “I shall do thee mischief in the wood” (2.1.237). Lysander is similarly prompted by the opportunity the forest offers, suggesting to Hermia, “One heart, one bed, two bosoms, and one troth” (2.2.42). All concerned begin to undergo metamorphoses, their imaginations now reshaped by potential freedoms, which their good names and sense of duty would deny in Athens. These licentious thoughts may be detected in the dreams of the young lovers, yet much remains censored and therefore appears opaque. Sex may be interpreted as the chief danger in the wood. Oberon’s spell is the promised, final seal that will safely lock away the wicked dreams and events of the night – “When they next awake, all this derision, shall seem a dream and fruitless vision” (3.2.370). The Fairy Kingdom allows the young lovers to unfasten the moral bonds of society but only for a brief space of time.
In an interesting move, Shakespeare transformed the fairies of English folklore from malevolent, fear-inspiring spirits who reputedly stole babies, to benevolent, eloquent beings. In the reverse of a funhouse mirror’s effect, the playwright prettifies the supernatural entities thus creating an eerie subtext that holds much meaning. Mary Ellen Lamb quotes Latham when addressing this point, she writes, “Shakespeare’s fairies bore little resemblance to traditional fairies, who were “tyrannical and dangerous beings, even in their jokes”’ (308). This break with tradition fails to hide old associations. In fact, the fairies’ original connotations help to unravel significant clues in the play. Lamb explains how, “Fairies and Robin Goodfellow import some of their subversive potential into the play as A Midsummer Night’s Dream literalizes the ongoing use of fairy practices in order to allude to understandings, especially sexual understandings, shared within a discursive community” (280). She continues by stating that in Shakespeare’s time, “the euphemism ‘going to see the fairies’ to indicate illicit sexual activities may have been widespread enough to be readily understood by a contemporary audience” (286). The alteration of the fairies is especially conspicuous in a dream setting since their distinctive aura, and all associated with them, are lost in a kind of character sanitation. In revealing the true nature of the fairies, one exposes a more honest account of the lovers’ intentions during their excursion to the woods. There is certainly hidden meaning in the meeting point suggested by Lysander to Hermia for their elopement, he suggests, “In the wood … where I did meet thee once with Helena, to do observance to a morn in May” (1.1.165). When Theseus finds the lovers after their eventful night, he suspects they had indeed come to observe the rite of May. The ancient, Pagan rituals of May Day are also alluded to in Hermia’s humorous slander of Helena, referring to her as, “Thou painted maypole” (3.2.296). Helena becomes the centre of attention for two men who literally circle her as youths would a real maypole in olden times. The original, Pagan practices of May Day would have included carousing and licentiousness. Do Shakespeare’s youths plan marriage, or mischief under the cover of the woods?
The residents of the Fairy Kingdom supply ample allusions to fertility and babies. This interlinks with why Robin Goodfellow, not usually associated with the fairies, is likely depicted as the Fairy King’s helper. Mary Ellen Lamb elaborates on the folk history of Robin Goodfellow, writing that Robin’s mother was reputedly visited at night by a “hee Fairy who ‘forced’ her to dance with him, resulting in her pregnancy” (286). However, it is Queen Titania who first broaches the topics of illegitimate children and changelings (mortal children replaced by fairies). The “changeling” (2.1.23) child now in Titania’s care is “A lovely boy stolen from an Indian King” (2.1.22) whose mother was formerly a “vot’ress” (2.1.127) of Titania’s order. The child’s mother died in childbirth, prompting Titania to seize it. Titania is shown to celebrate fertility when recalling how she and this friend, “laughed to see the sails conceive, and grow big-bellied with the wanton wind” (2.1.128). In a sharp break with the conventions of Shakespeare’s time, the dream world offers a caring, loving home for the children of illicit sexual trysts, and shrouds former shame in proclamations of sisterly love. Robin falls into this category of children and it may explain his reliance on the fairies. The mortal child stolen by Titania would have been replaced by a fairy (a changeling), showing that the fairies retain their old, sinister proclivities. Mary Ellen Lamb quotes Susan Schoon Eberly when describing the barbaric practices regarding children associated with the fairies in the English early modern period.
“It was popularly believed that if parents treated their changelings cruelly then the fairies would take the changelings back and return the mortal infants. Traditional methods – such a bathing them in foxglove (an herbal form of digitalis), starving them on a dunghill, or throwing them onto hot coals – were “little more than socially countenanced forms of infanticide.”(Lamb 292)
The harshness of the mortal world is inverted by Titania’s apparent love for her changeling child. When the overall scene is understood as a dreamscape where the youths have ‘gone to see the fairies’ then one may detect an underlying fear of Hermia’s and Helena’s that one of them could fall pregnant in the current situation. Such fears are conveniently offset when the queen of the realm is shown to profusely shower love over a changeling. This represents another distortion in the dreamscape, allowing for true fears to be hidden. The sense of detachment from the quotidian world is both obvious and conspicuous.
The play opens with two authoritarian males wishing to force Hermia into a loveless marriage. The groom-to-be, Demetrius, is covertly promised the prize of Hermia’s virginity, the one thing she is deemed unworthy to control. Hermia’s maidenhead is referenced repeatedly in the discussions between her and her father and King Theseus. In Athens, Theseus says she must marry Demetrius as per her father’s demands and failing that her stark choices are “Either to die the death or to abjure / Forever the society of men” (1.1.65). Theseus’s foresees Hermia’s life in the nunnery as one where the rose “Withering on the virgin thorn / Grows, lives, and dies in single blessedness” (1.1.77-78). Hermia seizes her opportunity to flee such oppressive power, simultaneously seizing power over her sexual agency, however, there are obvious risks to her reputation and future due to her current location and company. By diligently safeguarding her virginal status, Hermia would ironically remain a prisoner of her father and king’s power, despite her newfound freedom. This potential undercurrent of sexual rebellion must be acknowledged in Hermia’s character and dreams. Intricately linked with a fear of pregnancy is Hermia and Helena’s shared fear that the men will prove false and abandon them.
At the opening of the play, Egeus thunders that Lysander, “Hath bewitched the bosom of my child … [and] Stolen the impression of her fantasy” (1.1.27,33). Influenced no doubt by her father’s protests, Hermia’s insecurity surfaces in her promise to meet Lysander in the forest when she swears by, among other things, “That fire that burned the Carthage Queen” (1.1.173). Dido, the Carthage Queen, was abandoned by Aeneas and then, “on the pretext of making a sacrifice, she built a pyre, and there fell on a sword, deceiving all in her intention, as she had been herself deceived” (Ovid 313). The Ovidian image of the abandoned woman sacrificing herself belies Hermia’s faith in her lover. One may also be struck by the fact that Thisbe ends her life by falling on a sword, just like Dido. It is as though, even before Hermia enters the dreamland, the subconscious warnings visible in her references link to myth and folklore. The young woman speaks of “all the vows that ever men have broke / (In number more than ever women spoke)” (1.1.175-176) and this is a fear not easily overcome.
In the wood, Hermia’s fears will come to pass. Having slept for a time in the wild, she awakes from a nightmare, saying, “Methought a serpent ate my heart away / And you [Lysander] sat smiling at his cruel prey” (3.1.149-150). This occurs after she had denied Lysander permission to sleep with her and she awakes alone having had a premonition of the worst. Lamb explains the scene as follows, “The fairy ointment Puck rubs on Lysander’s eyelids alludes to what need not be directly stated; that his love for Hermia cooled as she denied him the illicit sexual pleasure he desired” (303). The eating of her heart, a grotesque and arresting image, is a dream within a dream since it is an actual dream within a dreamscape. The image of the serpent, a classic symbol of deceit, reappears when Lysander is believed to have been murdered and Hermia accuses Demetrius, saying, “With doubler tongue than thine, thou serpent, never adder stung” (3.2.71). As an emblem of Satan and forbidden knowledge, the serpent is highly suggestive in the context. The two men are like the serpent in that they hold in their power the knowledge of sex which they may share with the women but are also untrustworthy due to their serpentine worded proclamations of love. Unsurprisingly, there is constant doubt as to the true events of the night. Disturbing dreams seem to obscure as much as they reveal and certainly appear far from dreams denoting wish fulfilment.
However, Freud wrote of how, “disagreeable content serves only to disguise the thing wished for” (51). The disturbing dreamland experiences of Hermia and Helena are the richest in the imagery of myth and fable and therefore deserve further analysis. Hermia’s central fear is that Lysander is false, in which we hear echoes of her father’s appraisal of him. She is afraid he will abandon her after sexual relations, yet she presumably desires such relations too. When refusing him her bed, she protests at his cunning words, saying, “Lysander riddles very prettily” (2.2.53). The subsequent events in the forest are a crystallization of her worst fears.
Hermia’s greatest fear is betrayal by Lysander. Having denied Lysander’s request that they sleep together, she expresses her wish that, “Thy [Lysander’s] love ne’er alter till thy sweet life end!” (2.2.66-67). As the couple sleep separately, Robin makes his first error by applying the love juice to Lysander’s eyes instead of Demetrius.’ Upon waking, Hermia finds Lysander gone and soon she accuses Demetrius of murdering her love, saying, “Being o’er shoes in blood, plunge in the deep, and kill me too” (3.2.48). Like Thisbe, she imagines her own death as the solution to the loss of her only love. However, this wished-for death, worthy of a tragic maiden, is not her fate. Upon seeing Lysander again, Hermia questions, “What love could press Lysander from my side?” (3.2.189). Her last words to him had envisaged that their love would last unto death to which he had replied, “Amen, amen” to that fair prayer, say I, /And then end life when I end loyalty!” (2.2.68-69). However, the Lysander who now stands before Hermia is in love with Helena, and callously asks his former love, “Why seek’st thou me? Could not this make thee know /The hate I bear thee made me leave thee so?” (3.2.193-195). The ‘disagreeable content’ of Hermia’s dream is that Lysander has proven himself to be spectacularly false. She rejected Lysander’s sexual advance and he has abandoned her as a consequence. Yet, what is the thing wished for that the disagreeable content hides?
Herma’s wish fulfilment is both to know the true Lysander and to somehow retain his love. Prior to sleeping in the wood again, after which she will awake to find Lysander loves her anew, she exhaustedly says, “Bedabbled with the dew and torn with briars, I can no further crawl no further go” (3.2.443). This seemingly innocent description is reminiscent of Lamb’s story of a blueberry picker in 1930’s Newfoundland who said she had been lured away by the fairies when she was found in a dishevelled state the following day (288). Lamb writes, “One Mary Charles, … who strayed while picking berries, was found the next day “only in her bloomers,” her ribs broken, and terrified, claiming “the fairies had beckoned to her”’ (288). Though not harmed like Mary, Hermia’s condition as a result of getting lost in the woods, amid the fairies, raises questions. Lysander hates her – only to wholeheartedly love her again upon awakening the following day. Is the wish fulfilment that Lysander and Hermia have sexual relations? Does the dishevelled appearance of Hermia communicate illicit acts, and instead of Robin’s love juice, she is bedabbled with sweat or other bodily fluids? The potential loss of Lysander, which is the manifestation of her worst nightmare is ironically an approval for actions which would normally be denied to her, namely premarital sex. Hermia’s father and king both profess to be in control of her sex life, and therefore sex becomes not just tantalizingly taboo but also the pinnacle of freedom. One may also consider how abandoned and unloved Hermia feels on account of her father’s callous actions, so losing Lysander’s love holds more significance now than ever. In the dream one sees both the disagreeable result of denying Lysander, and the less explainable method by which his love is secured again. The young lovers sleep intermittently throughout the night, and much like in a dream the true sequence of events is not entirely reliable. When Lysander awakes in the morning, he says, “I cannot truly say how I came here” (4.1.154). The details are shrouded in secrecy.
In Helena’s case, the events that occur in the forest miraculously invert a situation that she abhors, namely her unrequited love. Demetrius had once been in love with Helena but now rejects her. Yet, she cannot hide her love for him and thereby exposes herself to continued humiliation by pursuing an uninterested man. She gives expression to the unedifying spectacle using a reference to Ovid’s tales where she reverses the original scene, “Apollo flies and Daphne holds the chase” (2.1.231). In this myth, Cupid uses two different arrows for Daphne and Apollo – “the one puts love to flight, the other kindles it” (Ovid 41). Thus, Apollo chases Daphne (original order) until she pleads to her father, Peneus, to “work some transformation, and destroy this beauty which makes me please all too well!” (Ovid 43). Daphne is turned into a tree to save her to save her from Apollo’s lust. Interestingly, Helena’s story resembles Daphne’s but is then inverted. For example, when Demetrius is initially scornful of Helena, she says, “I am as ugly as a bear, / For beasts that meet me run away for fear. / Therefore no marvel though Demetrius / Do as a monster, fly my presence thus” (2.2.94-97). However, Robin’s successive errors in the application of love juice result in both Demetrius and Lysander falling in love with Helena and abandoning Hermia. Helena’s previously professed desire to be “translated” (1.1.195) into Hermia’s image comes true now, as in a dream, in so far as she takes Hermia’s prized place as the object of affection of both men. Daphne turned from a beauty into a tree while Helena turns from a ‘beast’ into a beautiful maiden. Helena is now in a position of power and consequently may express her long-held doubts about the validity of both men loving one woman which arose when the woman concerned was Hermia! Her dream allows her to reject such a scenario as unrealistic. For instance, Helena denigrates Demetrius for being unmanly and inconsistent in his love, “Demetrius, who even but now did spurn me with his foot, to call be goddess, nymph, divine” (3.2.225). The disagreeable content of the dream is that she perceives that she is being mocked by the men who both cannot possibly love her, but this doubles as a confirmation that Demetrius’s prior transfer of his love from her to Hermia was also false. Helena may purge her old feelings of humiliation by rejecting both suitors so that the story is corrected and Apollo pursues Daphne in vain. Upon waking, Helena finds that Demetrius has indeed returned to her, and he explains his former disloyalty as “like a sickness” (4.1.180).
In an essay by Michael Taylor on Midsummer Night, he writes, “in comedy the ‘happy ending’ is inevitable” (3). Rather than destroying the effect of the play, dream analysis allows one to see a clear connection between imagination coloured by myth and folklore, and the related processing of fears and wishes. The vulnerabilities of the female characters are revealed in their dreams. With some prying, it is possible to decode hidden meanings. The ‘correction’ of love as promised by Oberon, involves the characters facing uncomfortable scenarios in dreamland to better understand the waking day. The happiness of the conclusion comes with the genre of comedy but one may still appreciate the working out of repressed thoughts which glimmer in the characters’ dreams.
In performing a resistant reading on a classic text, one will always encounter obstacles. The text cooperates with a reader who easily suspends disbelief whereas a dark reading of a comedy will inevitably appear fragmented and that is why one must adopt less stringent standards. On the other hand, it is telling that the Queen of Fairyland is sung to sleep by her fairy attendants who call on Philomel for aid, “Philomel, with melody / Sing in our sweet lullaby” (2.2.12-13). Philomel is one of the most wronged women in Ovid’s tales, a tragic figure who is raped and later has her tongue cut out to ensure her silence. For such a figure to sing a fairy lullaby, advancing a sleepy queen into dreamland is proof enough that dreams are loomed over by figures from myth and folklore in Shakespeare’s creation.
Freud, Sigmund. The Interpretation of Dreams. Translated by A. A. Brill, Wordsworth Editions, 1997.
Lamb, Mary Ellen. “Taken by the Fairies: Fairy Practices and the Production of Popular Culture in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 51, no. 3, 2000, pp. 277–312.
Miller, Ronald F., “A Midsummer Night’s Dream: The Fairies, Bottom, and the Mystery of Things.” Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 3, 1975, pp. 254-268
Ovid. Metamorphoses. Translated by Mary M. Innes, Penguin Books, 1973
Shakespeare, William. “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” The Norton Shakespeare. 3rd ed. Eds. Greenblatt, Stephen, Walter Cohen, Suzanne Gossett, Jean E. Howard, Katherine Eisaman Maus, and Gordon McMullan. W.W Norton, 2016, pp. 1037-1095.
Taylor, Michael. “The Darker Purpose of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 9, No. 2, 1969, pp. 259-273.