Ahh, love, love and more love. And there is more to this dream than love. With Shakespeare there is always more.
Lysander says, "The course of true love never did run smooth."(pg. 5) Some of the obstacles mentioned are: social standing, age differences and others choosing love for us. Even without these man-made obstacles there is war, death and disease. But Hermia says that this is normal: true love always has obstacles.
Helena is a woman who is jealous of Hermia, so jealous that she does not only want to be like Hermia, but she wants to be Hermia. "The rest I'ld give to be to you translated."(pg. 7) Helena's view of love is given on page 8. Important to remember that in that passage she uses "mind" not as we would. In the context it means emotion. She is saying that love does not look closely or consider—it has no judgment. The love she is talking about is young love, it might be called "infatuation" or "lust." Demetrius is like the man who is falling in and out of love every week and each week pledging his undying love to the woman he happens to be with.
Bottom loves to act; he wants to act every part. His and his company's view of women and themselves is distorted. Their idea that their acting will be so good that the lion in the play will scare them or the death of Pyramus will mortify them seems to indicate that they believe the women are incapable of discerning between reality and fantasy. Quite an insult!
Bottom is constantly using words that sound alike but have a meaning contrary to the one he wants. These are called malapropisms.
There is an important passage on pp. 15-16 (Act II, scene 1, lines 112-117. Titania says:
The childing autumn, angry winter, change
Their wonted liveries; and the mazed world,
By their increase, now knows not which is which:
And this same progeny of evils comes
From our debate, from our dissension;
We are their parents and original.
Titania talks about seasons that are not normal. No one can discern which is which. Is it winter? Is it summer? Who knows? This may represent a world unable to discern between good and evil. This world that has lost its moral conscience has its origin in Titania and Oberon's argument concerning the boy. Here we have forces beyond the human realm affecting what happens in the human realm. This happens throughout the play: the potion that is administered to Lysander, Bottom being translated into an "ass," Puck's antics and in the second half of the play there is even more.
Some critics see this as a reference to Adam and Eve, the "parents of original sin."
Helena's devotion to Demetrius is beyond normal. This is particularly evident when she says that she will be his "Spaniel."(pg.18) She is willing to be his dog so that even if he completely rejects her she will follow him with the same devotion that a dog has for a cruel master.
One of my favorite passages in the play is Bottom's comment to Titania when she says that she loves him(pg. 30 / Act III, Scene i, lines 129-133):
Methinks, mistress, you should have little reason for that: and yet, to say the truth, reason and love keep little company together now-a-days; the more the pity, that some honest neighbours will not make them friends.
Funny, very funny. Love has little to do, Bottom says, with reason. I'm sure many of you have watched your friends "fall in love" and wondered what in the world they were doing. It seems to me to be a comment on most of the "love" that is taking place within the play.
pp. 31-66 / Act III, Scene 1 through Act V
One of the most famous lines in this play is, "Lord, what fools these mortals be!" It's an unfair comment by Puck. He is laughing at the very things that he is partly responsible for causing. If the mortals are fools, then certainly Puck shares in their foolishness.
Bottom is considered by many critics (among them Northrup Frye and Harold Bloom) to be the most important character in the play. He is the only mortal in the play who can see the world of the fairies. Though Bottom appears to be somewhat self-centered, he is, nonetheless, a genuine, good-natured individual. Look how he treats the fairies Mustardseed, Peaseblossom and Cobweb on page 31 (Act III, Scene 2). He's courteous and genuine. With Bottom there is no pretension, no posturing, he is a man with faults, but who willingly shows himself to the world whether he is with his friends or with fairies or before the king and queen. Harold Bloom wrote about him, "But Bottom is heroically sound in the goodness of his heart, his bravery, his ability to remain himself in any circumstance, his refusal to panic or even be startled. . . . Bottom is a superb comic, and a very good man . . ."
Bottom's monologue on page 52 (Act IV, end of Scene 1) where he is changed back into his former self and thinks he has had a dream is important. He says, "man is but an ass, if he go about to expound this dream." This might not only be a reference to Bottom's dream but also to Shakespeare's play—also called a dream in the title. Maybe Shakespeare is warning those who want to explain his play, as I am now doing, to cease. We might apply it to larger considerations: maybe Shakespeare is commenting on life. Possibly, life is ultimately unexplainable and those who try explaining it make themselves into donkeys.
Bottom says of his dream, "it shall be called Bottom's Dream, because it hath no bottom." Again, what is Shakespeare commenting on here? A dream without a bottom is a dream that cannot be explained, a dream that is mysterious, a dream beyond comprehension. Again, might this be Shakespeare's comment on life? Maybe. It might, again, be a comment on his own play. It may be both—I prefer that interpretation. Life has no bottom: there are always new things to learn, new ways to look at it, new rivers that need exploring.
The Bible verse that Bottom misquotes is this same passage is I Corinthians 2:9-10.
Another famous passage from the play is at the beginning of Act V, Scene 1. Theseus argues against fables (he who is a mythical character) and all that results from the "seething brains" of lovers and madmen. He then goes on to dismiss lunatics, lovers and poets (Is Shakespeare laughing at himself?). He considers the poets' words to be snatched out of the air and about nothing. He says when joy comes they create someone who brings it. They do the same for fear.
However, Hippolyta is having none of this and she lets Theseus know that she does not agree with him. Although her speech is shorter it is more important.
But all the story of the night told over,
And all their minds transfigured so together,
More witnesseth than fancy's images,
And grows to something of great constancy;
But, howsoever, strange and admirable.
In other words, Hippolyta is saying, "You can say that if you want, but look at them. It is not just that they tell the same story, no, it is more than that. They are changed and changed for the better and this is evidence enough for me that the lovers and the poets bring a depth to life that is necessary for goodness and contentment." Theseus has no time to respond, but one knows and fears that he probably would have. We can thank Shakespeare for not allowing him to.
For those of you who are interested the prologue in the play within the play(pg.57 / Act V, Scene 1, starting at line 108), as punctuated, is absurd. This is a technique that Shakespeare sometimes uses for comic effect. When punctuated correctly it makes perfect sense. I have obtained the correct punctuation from The Arden Shakespeare: A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Playgoer’s Edition and here it is:
Quince’s Prologue Rightly Punctuated:
If we offend, it is with our good will
That you should think we come, not to offend,
But with good will to show our simple skill:
That is the true beginning of our end.
Consider then, we come—but in despite
We do not come—as minding to content you;
Our true intent is all for your delight:
We are not here that you should here repent you.
The actors are at hand . . .
Though Theseus may have it wrong concerning poets he is a gracious host to the players. They are not professionals and their play, though trying to be serious, is rather funny because of the acting. But Theseus enjoys the play and on page 60 he says, "If we imagine no worse of them than they of themselves, they may pass for excellent men." It's almost a restatement of the Golden Rule.
When Bottom at the end of the play says, "No, I assure you; the wall is down that parted their fathers," he is saying something large. A wall that separated men is down and they are no longer parted from one another. There are religious connotations here. It might be a statement about the Christ. It may also be a general statement about walls that divide us socially, religiously, racially and economically. Once those walls come down, if in fact they can, the play comes to its good end. Theseus says after this, "No epilogue, I pray you; for your play needs no excuse." That is, it is not necessary to explain your play, it is good as it stands. He tells the players their play was "very notably discharged." In other words, they did a good job.
Again, it makes me wonder what Shakespeare would think about the hundreds and hundreds of books that have been written which try to explain his plays.
Puck ends the play with almost an apology and it is only at this point that I begin to like him. If I was offended Puck offers to mend this and asks me to consider that I have only been part of a dream—that I have slept—since it was a dream—how else could I have observed it?
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.
The Arden Shakespeare: A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Playgoer’s Edition, Harold F. Brooks, editor, Thomas Nelson and Sons, Ltd., 1997.
Bloom, Harold, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Putnam, Inc., New York, 1998.
Frye, Northrup, Northrup Frye on Shakespeare, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1986.