The Dark Shadows of A Midsummer Night's Dream
Author(s): Rosie Bell
Copyright holder(s): Rosie Bell
The Dark Shadows of "A Midsummer Night's Dream."
"All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream."
Edgar Allan Poe
The above quotation can be seen as an echo of Puck's closing address to the audience in "A Midsummer Night's Dream". He subtly suggests that perhaps we have all merely been dreaming. He refers to himself and his fellow actors as "shadows." In the play there is a rythmic swing from life to fantasy, from natural to unnatural, from life to art. Act I, scene I is about love, which is natural and scene II is about acting, which is unnatural. During the course of the play the pendulum will be halted and set in motion again, at a slightly different slant.
Helplessness and irresponsibility, usually the essence of comedy, create, in the Dream, comic but alarming confusion. Everything turns out all right in the end but things could have taken a sinister turn: a young girl could have been consigned to a convent; a tragic accident, due to a message going astray, might have befallen a young couple. There is, in the play, a subliminal suggestion that, in spite of a tremendous potential for chaos, our universe is, after all, ordered. However, the random factor in the action is the inconstant moon. Her role is highly ambiguous, she flickers in and out of the action. When the lovers enter the wood the moon sets, so confusion mounts as they have to try to find their way by starlight. The foggy darkness ordered by Oberon forces them to bed down for the night in the wood and only the coming of dawn releases the hapless quartet from their state of bewilderment. The flight from the reasoned repression of the city has led the lovers into the wood, where the opposite range of forces take control. Unreason rules; magic and fantasy are set free.
By the end of the play, the conflict between Reason and Dream must somehow be reconciled and transcended.
"A Midsummer Night's Dream" is a tale of transformation under the ambiguous influence of Love, Dream and Fancy. According to Theseus, the lovers in the play are irrational because they are at the mercy of imagination. Almost every important character makes reference to dreams or dreaming :
"My Oberon! What visions have I seen!
Methought I was enamour'd of an ass"
exclaims Titania, who believes that her experiences with the donkey-headed Bottom was only a dream. In fact, there is only one real dream in the play, when, with Freud-like anticipation, Hermia dreams that a serpent "ate my heart away". The fantasy in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" is of a dark kind with hardly a glimmer of light anywhere. In this so-called comedy, Shakespeare describes experiences that are on the border of sanity and on the edge of unconsciousness.
We transcend our own world and time when we journey, with the fairies, to their primeval world which has existed since before the dawn of civilisation. In that world, into which Bottom is so rudely thrust, creatures are, by their nature, savage and cruel. The besotted Titania sends her minions off on guerilla raids for bats' wings to make leather jackets for her elves and for little comforts for her new love:
"The honey-bags steal from the bumble bees
And for night tapers crop their waxen thighs,
And light them at the fiery glow-worms' eyes,
To have my love to bed and to arise..."
This "belle dame sans merci" even instructs the fairies to :
"...pluck the wings from painted butterflies
To fan the moonbeams from his sleeping eyes..."
which must, perforce, be viewed ,as being somewhat cannibalistic, as fairies and butterflies must be at least cousins. Bottom joins in this cruelty, instructing the fairies to steal and kill, revelling in all the attention due to him in his new role as consort to the Faerie Queen. Bottom, like the lovers, has been transformed by the wood but his transformation is on the outside only. He remains unchanged inside, protected by his own supreme self-confidence. A true actor needs only his art and Bottom will go on to turn his experience to good use. He will get Peter Quince to write a ballad of "Bottom's Dream" revealing the fact that he also thought that he had been dreaming. Although most of the other characters in the play are vain and selfish: the king and queen of the fairies particularly so, in their wrangling over the little Indian boy, Bottom's egotism is so natural and unasumed that he cannot really be described as being vain.
It has been said that anything is possible as long as you can imagine it and, of course, imagination is the key to the Dream. In the play, imagination is seen as a natural human faculty that cannot be civilised out of existence. Once released from the confines of the city, humans enter the kind of world where anything can happen and usually does. Helena displays a close relationship between love and imagination in I ii :
"Things base and vile, holding no quantity,
Love can transpose to form and dignity..."
However, love is mortal and, therefore, transitory. The emotion itself can be felt very strongly but love can also be very brief and very vulnerable. The dance-like change of partners: Hermia with Lysander, Helena with Demetrius at the beginning of the dance and then this order being rudely broken by Demetrius and his "Excuse-Me" dance is an illustration of the fickleness of love. The pursuit of Demetrius by Helena is a break with convention, which can be viewed as being comic but can also be seen to have its darker side :
"Your wrongs do set a scandal on my sex."
It is indicative of the boys' characters that they should succumb so readily to Oberon's love-juice. It may be that the fairy king's intentions were only to do good but one cannot help wondering if he might not have got some kind of vicarious pleasure out of manipulating the affairs of the lovers. We are aware that he is a notorious philanderer including Hippolyta, one of the other pair of royals, as his mistress. There may even be a dark suspicion in the back of our minds that Oberon wants the little Indian boy for duties other than that of page boy. After all, why does Titania. show such resistance to handing the child over? Being a page in the entourage of a king would surely have been the ambition of many a young boy? Titania, being the wife of the king would have been able to keep an affectionate eye on the son of her her former friend.
The character of Puck also deserves some scrutiny. As Robin Goodfellow, he is a popular folkloric hero, albeit a bit "knavish" at times but he also has a darker side to him. Oberon refers to Puck as "Hobgoblin". He is a pooka figure, a kind of demon. Puck is representative of the spirit of mis-rule in the play, a kind of Elizabethan anarchist. He can even be seen as entering the area of lycanthropy when he endows Bottom with the ass's head. Whereas each group of characters only has a limited vision of the action, Puck seems to be in a position to overlook the whole of the action. This omniscience must be simple for someone who can :
"...put a girdle round about the earth
In forty minutes."
The characters of The about-to-be-married Thesues and Hippolyta are not exactly snow-white. He is drawn as old lecher who can't wait till his wedding night to get Hippolyta "into the sack". One wonders why she is acting so coyly, After all, we know that she is not exactly sexually inexperienced. Is Theseus really in a position to make a judgement in matters, of love and marriage when he has, by his own admission to Hippolyta :
"...woo'd thee with my sword,
And won thy love doing thee injuries..." ?
Hermia's father, Egeus, is also a bit of a rascal. He would not qualify for "The Father of the Year" award. His character is flawed because he stands in the way of true love.
The four lovers are all spoiled, self-absorbed, affected and adolescent. They use rhyme a lot, which can be seen as their shallowness of character. This contrasts sharply with the speech of the royal lovers. Their speech, as befits their state and dignity, is somewhat more exalted than that of the lovers. The royals use mainly blank verse.
The humans in "A Midsummer Night's Dream", with the exception of the mechanicals, who are hilarious, are dull in comparison to the fairies. They belong to the night, to the wood and the wild places. The humans belong to the civilised world. There is an obvious question to be raised as to which world is the more civilised.
This play caters for the need felt by most humans to be entertained by tales of enchantment and escapism. The general effect of it is hypnotic and, in its time, no doubt satisfied the puritanical, corrective theory that comedy should hold up the mirror to one's own follies. However, with a mere nudge, this play could have been slotted into the realms of gothic horror.
This work is protected by copyright. All rights reserved.
The SCOTS Project and the University of Glasgow do not necessarily endorse, support or recommend the views expressed in this document.
Cite this Document
The Dark Shadows of A Midsummer Night's Dream. 2023. In The Scottish Corpus of Texts & Speech. Glasgow: University of Glasgow. Retrieved 7 December 2023, from http://www.scottishcorpus.ac.uk/document/?documentid=909.
"The Dark Shadows of A Midsummer Night's Dream." The Scottish Corpus of Texts & Speech. Glasgow: University of Glasgow, 2023. Web. 7 December 2023. http://www.scottishcorpus.ac.uk/document/?documentid=909.
The Scottish Corpus of Texts & Speech, s.v., "The Dark Shadows of A Midsummer Night's Dream," accessed 7 December 2023, http://www.scottishcorpus.ac.uk/document/?documentid=909.
If your style guide prefers a single bibliography entry for this resource, we recommend:
The Scottish Corpus of Texts & Speech. 2023. Glasgow: University of Glasgow. http://www.scottishcorpus.ac.uk.