A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare

This year I’m taking part in a reading project hosted by Risa with the aim of reading twelve of Shakespeare’s plays, one every month during 2012. I have not actually studied Shakespeare since I was at school and although I’ve read a few of his plays since then I’m not sure I completely understood them so this seemed like a good reading challenge for me to participate in.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream was January’s play. This is not the first time I’ve read this play; the last time was two years ago in 2010 when I read it as part of my own personal Shakespeare challenge (which was a complete failure, by the way, as I never actually got around to reading any more of his plays that year!) but I liked the idea of reading it at the same time as other people, so I was happy to read it again. This post is an updated version of my original post from 2010, with some new opinions and observations as I picked up on different things this time round than I did on my previous read.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is thought to have been written around 1594-1596 and is classed as a comedy. There are three separate storylines woven into the plot. The first involves the upcoming wedding of Theseus, the Duke of Athens, and Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons. A group of craftsmen (known as ‘mechanicals’) are rehearsing the story of Pyramus and Thisbe, a play they are planning to perform at the wedding.

In the second thread we meet Oberon and Titania, King and Queen of the fairies. Titania has a new little servant boy and Oberon is jealous. He and the fairy, Puck, come up with a plot to distract Titania while Oberon takes the boy away from her.

The third storyline follows Hermia (who is in love with Lysander), Helena (who is in love with Demetrius), and Demetrius and Lysander (who are both in love with Hermia). Confusing? Yes – and it gets even more complicated when the four of them get mixed up in Puck and Oberon’s scheming!

In Act I Scene 1, Lysander tells us “the course of true love never did run smooth” (one of those quotes you might have heard without even having read the play; Puck’s line, “Lord, what fools these mortals be!” is another) – and one of the central themes of the play is love and its difficulties. Here is one of my favourite quotes on the subject of love, spoken by Helena:

Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind;
And therefore is winged Cupid painted blind:
Nor hath Love’s mind of any judgement taste;
Wings and no eyes figure unheedy haste:
And therefore is Love said to be a child,
Because in choice he is so oft beguiled.

The play begins and ends in Athens but the majority of the play is set in the nearby woods, a place free from Athenian law where anything can happen. There are a lot of allusions to the moon, fantasy and dreams which help to create a magical, dream-like atmosphere for the play and hint that the action that follows may be taking place in a fantasy world, rather than in reality. The references to the moon also suggest that the important events of the play are going to happen at night by the light of the moon (I love the way Hippolyta describes the moon as ‘like to a silver bow, new bent in heaven’).

With some of Shakespeare’s plays I find it difficult to get a real sense of the time and place, but with this one I have no problem picturing the characters running through the moonlit woods on a warm midsummer’s night while the fairies dance around them weaving their magic. The dreamlike mood is enhanced by the way much of the action takes place while various characters are sleeping. Here Oberon describes the bank where Titania sleeps. Isn’t the language beautiful?

I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine.
There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,
Lulled in these flowers with dances and delight;

As in several of Shakespeare’s plays there’s also a theme of doubling and symmetry with Theseus and Hippolyta mirroring Oberon and Titania, and the two men Lysander and Demetrius being balanced by the two women Hermia and Helena. The conflict is caused by the fact that although Hermia and Lysander are in love, Demetrius also loves Hermia, leaving Helena on her own. The balance needs to be restored by Demetrius falling in love with Helena before the story can come to its conclusion. But as this is a comedy rather than a tragedy like Romeo and Juliet, it’s all very lighthearted and after all the misunderstandings have been cleared up, Shakespeare ends with the play-within-a-play (Bottom and his friends’ performance of Pyramus and Thisbe) and finally, these words from Puck…

If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumbered here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend:
if you pardon, we will mend:
And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearned luck
Now to ‘scape the serpent’s tongue,
We will make amends ere long;
Else the Puck a liar call;
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.

I enjoyed my re-read of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and will be reading Macbeth later this month.

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4 thoughts on “A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare

    • Helen says:

      I’ve found that I definitely need to read Shakespeare’s plays more than once before I can start to fully understand them. I enjoyed this one a lot more this time round!

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