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Unifying the Plots of Shakespeare's A Midsummer-Night's Dream

From Shakespeare's Comedy of A Midsummer-Night's Dream. Ed. Katharine Lee Bates. Boston: Leach, Shewell, & Sanborn.

From one point of view A Midsummer-Night's Dream is a triumph of construction. The most heterogeneous fowl, a classical hero, a Teutonic goblin, an Amazonian queen, grotesque English artisans, two brace of Athenian lovers, and the daintiest woodland fairies that ever sang lullaby with Philomel, are caught together in a moonshine net of poetry spangled with allusions to mythical demigods, mediaeval nuns, Warwickshire mayers, London actors, Indian kings, French coins, Centaurs, sixpences, the Man in the Moon, Bacchanals, heraldry, Jack and Jill, mermaids, magic herbs, swords, guns, Tartars, and the Antipodes. The elfin queen of subjects so tiny as to
"Creep into acorn-cups and hide them there"
winds in her arms the big body of a human clown. Four days so quickly steep themselves in nights, four nights so quickly dream away the time, that not all the counting of all the critics has yet righted the silver striking of the fairy clock. The waning moon is full before she is new. The play that is acted in the palace has forgotten the parts assigned in the carpenter's shop and the speeches rehearsed in the grove. The threat of death excites Hermia far less than the slur on her stature. Fairy sentinels nod at their posts, and the asshead enables Bottom to speak the English tongue. It ought to be all a jumble, and it is an artistic harmony.

But how? What, in this that looks so helter-skelter, is the unifying truth? Here the scholars are at variance. The play is a twist of gold cord and rainbow silks, homespun yarn and shimmering moonbeams. The royal gold, it is generally agreed, binds the rest together, but does not make a part of the actual comedy-knot. Each of the other threads in turn has felt the critical tug.

"We hurry over the tedious quarrels of the lovers," declares Mr. Marshall (Irving Shakespeare, 1888), "anxious to assist at the rehearsal of the tragi-comedy of 'Pyramus and Thisbe.' The mighty dispute that rages between Oberon and Titania about the changeling boy does not move us in the least degree. We are much more anxious to know how Nick Bottom will acquit himself in the tragical scene between Pyramus and Thisbe. It is in the comic portion of this play that Shakespeare manifests his dramatic genius."

"The fairies are the primary conception of the piece," asserts a contributor to the Edinburgh Review (April, 1848), "and their action the main action."

"The real centre of the plot," announces Professor Wendell of Harvard (William Shakspere, 1894), "is the love-story of the four Athenians."

Action diagram


a. Theseus and Hippolyta.

b. The Lovers.

C. The Clowns.

d. The Fairies, the "night-rule" of Titania (l) lying apart from that of Oberon (2).

e. The Magic Flower.

It is not difficult to see in what mutual relation the four elements stand. If a diagram may be allowed, it becomes clear that the encompassing action is that of Theseus and Hippolyta, the human sovereigns. With the fairy element these never come into contact. The clown action touches both, and so does the action of the Athenian lovers. All the perplexities of the plot proceed from the fairies, save the cross in the loves of Helena and Demetrius, which is resolved by the fairies. The elves are thus at the centre of the comedy, although Titania has so far withdrawn herself from her wee lord, as bent on maintaining masculine supremacy in fairyland as Theseus is in Athens, that she, too, undergoes the witchery of the magic juice. The web of enchantment that overspreads the play radiates from the mischievous little flower love-in-idleness, and its ready agents, the "king of shadows" and "sweet Puck."

The contrasted features here are the waking world, the world of daylight, scepticism, reality, and the dream-world, the world of moonshine, charm, and illusion. These two worlds must forever lie apart. So long as the poet observes this verity, what matter if Athens and London are shaken up together, and the classic ages masquerade in feudal dress? No elves hop in the walks and gambol in the eyes of Theseus. He gives courtly audience in palace halls, or in the crisp "vaward of the day" rides to the chase after his pack of Spartan hounds, whose

"heads are hang
With ears that sweep away the morning dew."
If we meet the duke between "after-supper and bed-time," he sits in the circle of the lights, smiling graciously as he classes in one category of "seething brains"
"The lunatic, the lover, and the poet."
He takes good-humored pleasure in the absurdities of the interlude, unaware that Shakespeare may be quizzing even him, to whom the Real is the all, to whom "strong imagination" is but a thing of "tricks," in the blundering efforts after realism manifested in Wall and Moonshine.

Lysander and his sharp-tongued Hermia, Helena and her still enchanted Demetrius, touch prose-land on the side of their daily Athenian living; but their loves and their youth have made them free of the fairy-haunted wood for one long midsummer night.

As for Bottom, he is the very creature of delusion. Self-love lays a more potent spell upon the eyelids than the infatuation even of a Titania for an ass.

The drama opens in the realm of reality. Theseus and Hippolyta, in the briefest of conversations, unconsciously strike the keynotes of moonlight, dreams, and love. With the entrance of the courtiers, the entanglements of comedy become apparent. Helena loves Demetrius. Demetrius, forsworn, loves Hermia. Hermia and Lysander love each other. Under stern penalty their loves are forbidden. They plot an escape, which Helena betrays to Demetrius. In a humble quarter of Athens, meanwhile, under constant interruption and dictation from the tragic star, Master Peter Quince is schooling his company of amateur players. The second act introduces us to quite another world. We live with spirits for our company; and although once the moonlight glades are crossed by the fleeting figures of Demetrius and Helena, and again the fragrant turf is pressed by the weary forms of Lysander and Hermia, the human world they represent has already waxed more unreal than fairyland. Upon the eyes of Lysander is thrown the power of the charm, and Helena is wrapt in angry bewilderment. With the third act the climax of confusion is attained. Bottom wears in the sight of all the ass-head which Puck saw on him from the first; the fairies guide his boorish steps to the bower of their enamoured queen, whose flower-cradle was ill-guarded from jealousy and surprise; deep into the apple of Demetrius's eye sinks the purple juice; and the four lovers, for the delectation of roguish Puck, play out their "fond pageant" with hearts and hands and voices all striving at cross-purposes, until exhaustion constrains to rest. The fourth act brings blithe relief. That determined inch of majesty, King Oberon, his end secured, looks askance on Titania's devotion to Bottom, and deems it time to undo

"This hateful imperfection of her eyes."
Startled by the morning lark, away trip the fairies after the night's shade,
"We the globe can compass soon,
Swifter than the wandering moon,"
and the hunting-horns of Theseus awake the lovers. This long-bewitched quartet, their parts tunefully adjusted at last, kneel before the duke for his urbane and easy pardon, and rise, with haunting memories of agonies and raptures gone, to make ready for their weddings. Even Bottom arouses from such a dream as "the eye of man hath not heard," and, with a marked lapse in his English, hurries on the play. The fifth act, like the first, opens in the realm, not of Oberon, but of Theseus yet with a difference. The literalism of the players parodies the realistic theories of the duke, the "very tragical mirth" of the interlude mocks the forest adventures of the lovers, and possibly Bottom himself vaguely suspects derision in the plaudits. The world of fact is never so stable and serious again after a midsummer night in fairyland. And when, at last,
"The iron tongue of midnight hath told twelve,"
and the palace is hushed and dim, frolic trippings and warbled notes and glimmering sprites bless the bridal chambers, sweeping away the impurities of life's toilsome hours, and purging man's mortal grossness yet once more with the mysteries of moonlight, dreams, and love.

How to cite this article:
Shakespeare, William. Shakespeare's Comedy of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Ed. Katharine Lee Bates. Boston: Leach, Shewell, & Sanborn, 1895. Shakespeare Online. 20 Dec. 2009. (date when you accessed the information) < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/plays/midsummer/mdsstructure.html >.
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