Dreams and Imagination in A Midsummer Night’s Dream
(Below is a paper I wrote in October of 1999 about A Midsummer Night’s Dream, my favorite Shakespeare play)
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a play which playfully demonstrates the undeniable role that dreams and illusions play in ordinary, daily life. Dreams and fantasies alter the natural world as we know it and in the process, the dreamer is altered as well. The actors, the Athenian world, and the audience all feel the changes induced by things that are beyond human understanding. The rich presence and descriptions of nature in the fairy world contribute to the magical and mystical aspects of the play. These aspects emphasize dreams, imagination, illusion and fantasy.
The audience can fully take part in the green world even though humans cannot identify with the inhabitants of the wood. The fairy world is supernatural, but the audience is allowed a glimpse into the existence of the fairies. Human spectators are invited to experience and appreciate the interesting disruptions of time and space.
The green world is a world of mystery, play, freedom, and love. The fairies that inhabit this world live and operate on a level of art and imagination. The fairy world is fused with these uncontrollable forces. As a result, the forest is chaotic, immortal and lacking in sense. It refutes all the logic of Theseus’s world, which consists of stiff Athenian law. The forest is a place to escape from the everyday world.
The events that take place in the forest can be considered a dream because a dream is also an escape from the everyday world. The woods are always vibrant, colorful and full of life. Imagination is limitless, therefore, dreamers never feel trapped. In the dull court of Athens, the lovers are hopelessly trapped and almost suffocating. The woods allow the lovers to be free to pursue their passions whole-heartedly.
The green world is indeed a world of illusion. It is a home for supernatural, immortal beings, as well as a place for mortals to take part in mischief, spontaneous love, and fun. The green world is a liberated, mystical, magical place. It mocks authority wildly and playfully. Being in the woods resembles being in a dream because there is no logic, consistency nor order.
Any real sense of time and space is lacking which makes dreaming (and life in the wood) liberating, frightening and uncertain all at once. The lovers are aware that they are not on secure footing. The bizarre events occurring in the forest cause them to ultimately question who they are and what has gone wrong. All the answers they seek so desperately are always beyond their reach.
In Act III, when Hermia awakes alone in the forest, she cries out in fear. She has just had a dream in which a crawling serpent was trying to eat her heart. She dreams of Lysander’s betrayal before it happens. The dream is sudden and disturbing just as Lyysander’s change of heart and loss of love for Hermia will be. When the rejection occurs, it turns Hermia’s knowledge of the world upside down.
The serpent dream arouses great fear in Hermia. After her confusion with Lysander is resolved, however, Hermia remembers Lysander’s rejection as nothing more than a bad dream. It was scary but temporary. Hermia’s serpent dream disrupts her peaceful life. The forest disrupts Athenian order and convention in a similar way. It manipulates reality through supernatural forces.
Everything that occurs in the wood is believed to be a dream. When Titania finds herself asleep on the ground with an ass, she tells Oberon that she has seen ‘visions” of herself enamored of an ass. She never considers the possibility that those visions occurred in reality. Her mind has been so full of love and magic that it all seemed to be a dream. The idea of Titania being in love with an ass is completely absurd. She chooses not to believe that it actually happened because it makes no sense to her.
As Bottom awakens from his slumber with Titania, there is no doubt in his mind that his brief love affair as an ass was simple “a most rare vision.” He declares that he has had a dream that cannot be explained, understood, or reported by any human means. He illustrates his confusion and wonder in this passage:
the eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man
hath not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his
tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report, what
my dream was.
Instead of telling everyone about his amazing dream, he wants to show it to an audience. Bottom’s experience at this point can serve as a parallel to Shakespeare’s writing of A Midsummer Nights Dream. Instead of attempting to understand or analyze their visions, Bottom and Shakespeare let the dream stand on its own as a wondrous work of art. The dream presented as a work of art contains more substance and impact than it would if it had simply been reported.
Through the encounters between the lovers and the fairies, the audience is able to experience all the extremes of humiliation, love, chaos, and frustration. When the dreams are shown for what they are, it becomes easier for an audience to learn from them and more difficult to dismiss them. Dreams take on a new, heightened meaning when they are viewed as actual events.
When all the spells have been corrected by the lord of misrule, Puck, the lovers are brought back to reality and out of their sleeping (dreaming) state by the nobility of Athens. They explain their stories and are later left alone. There is still a feeling of great confusion in the air. Demetrius speaks of things seeming “small” and “indistinguishable” and Hermia speaks of seeing double. Demetrius then notes:
Are you sure
That we are awake? It seems to me
That yet we sleep, we dream. Do not you think
The Duke was here and bid us follow him?
The lovers have to pause for a brief moment and reflect about what just happened to them. They wonder if everything had been a dream because it was so nonsensical and strange.
The lovers still feel the weighty presence of a dream that leaves no remnants. It is as if the lovers had temporarily left their actual, reasonable bodies and stepped into a world of make-believe. Once they realize that they are indeed, fully awake, the problems they have undergone seem to be nothing but silly visions.
The lovers have been manipulated by the supernatural dream world of the fairies. Although it was all nonsense, the green world has changed them all for the better. In their present state, the lovers are more prepared as adults to enter into mature, loving, married relationships like that of Theseus and Hippolyta.
In Theseus’ first speech in Act V, he marvels at the strange tales told by the lovers. He finds that they are very hard to believe.
He is skeptical about the validity of their stories because lovers are known to weave such fantasies that go beyond anything which concerns “cool reason.” Theseus links the imagination of a lunatic, a lover and a poet as being one in the same. Each of these persons dreams of things unknown and these dreams become their ultimate reality. The dreaming may be frantic and frenzied, but the poet makes sense of them by putting them on the page. Written down, all illogical dreams and illusions take on a realistic quality because they then exist in the natural world.
The title, A Midsummer Night’s Dream suggests that the occurrences in the entire play were nothing more than some fantastical dream. Puck enforces this idea in his concluding speech which is addressed to the audience. He attempts to reassure the audience when he says:
If we shadows, have offended,
This but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumb’red here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding than a dream,
These statements, however, cannot fully appease the audience because the play has changed the audience’s perception of dreaming.
Throughout the body of the play, the characters have been so deeply affected by such illusions and reveries that the dreams have become a lasting force in their lives. The characters have examined, questioned, and lived within their dreams so thoroughly that the idea of dismissing the play as a meaningless dream is simply ridiculous. Through the creation of a reality all its own, the play has touched the lives of those in the audience and has succeeded in making those lives more meaningful. When confusing and upsetting things happen in their daily lives, the audience will begin to question and wonder what greater forces are at work.
After experiencing life in the wood, the audience has been permanently altered. In the same way, the court of Athens has been altered as the world of the wood spills over into it. In the final act, the play within a play reinforces the relationship between art and life. The dreams of the lovers join together with the waking world to carry them into the next stage of life- a happy union in marriage. When it becomes “fairy” time, the supernatural fairy world merges with the natural, human world of Athens and blesses the houses in a spirit of harmony.
The fairies have led the lovers to their happy endings through the use of magic, dreams, and illusions. Titania is happily reconciled with Oberon and the two are ready to unite the world of immortality and the world of death. Without the insistent intrusion of fantasy and mysticism, the lovers would never have found love and happiness in one another. The fairy world of fantasy has loosened and improved the Athenian world of fact.
The conclusion made by Puck that the play may have only been a dream is difficult to accept because dreaming has been so abundant in the play and vital to the plot. The audience has witnessed its consequences and the confusion that dreaming can cause. The audience willingly chose to suspend their disbelief and accept the matters in the play as real. By the end of the story, it’s too late to ask the audience to disregard what has just been seen. It has already taken stock in the characters’ lives and been amused by the misunderstandings. The fairy world has already succeeded in changing the way the audience looks a the mad occurrences of life.
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