One of William Shakespeare's best-known comedies, published circa 1595.

Dramatis Personae

Theseus, Duke of Athens.
Egeus, father to Hermia.
Demetrius, both in love with Hermia.
Philostrate, master of the revels to Theseus.
Quince, a carpenter.
Snug, a joiner.
Bottom, a weaver.
Flute, a bellows-mender
Snout, a tinker
Starveling, a tailor
Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons, betrothed to Theseus.
Hermia, daughter to Egeus, in love with Lysander.
Helena, in love with Demetrius.
Oberon, king of the fairies.
Titania, queen of the fairies.
Puck, or Robin Goodfellow.
Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Moth, and Mustardseed, fairies
Other fairies attending their King and Queen.
Attendants on Theseus and Hippolyta.
Scene: Athens, and a wood near it

Act 1

Act 2 Act 3 Act 4 Act 5

Originally (partially) noded by android.

The Relation of Linguistic Form to Semantic Content:

In A Midsummer Might’s Dream

The forms of language that Shakespeare chose when writing certain characters determine not only how those characters would sound on stage, but how they develop as well. That is: the plot of the play is affected by linguistic form, just as it is affected by the (semantic) content of those forms. In the case of A Midsummer Night’s Dream the character of Helena is a perfect example of this. The forms that her language falls into tell the audience much more about her than the content of the speech will get across. Though any random selection of lines from the play could show the same, lines 129-140 in Act 2, Scene 2 seem to be particularly susceptible to analysis in this fashion.

The strong use of alliteration in line 132 of this speech illustrates that Helena remains completely involved with her love for Demetrius and his previous refusals to return that love. The emphasis placed on the negative (through repeated stresses on ‘nor’, ‘no’ and the initial syllables of both occurrences of ‘never’) shows the reader that not only does Helena remain preoccupied with her past experiences with Demetrius (see, for example: 2,1,188-244 and also at 2,2,90-108), but that she strongly believes that her affections will never be returned (despite evidence to the contrary). The rhetorical figure of alliteration is important here, not only for the sound of the text, but also for the content of the play itself. The language heightens the action, and adds to the dynamic created between Helena and her two ‘suitors’. Shakespeare might have written a similar line, without the alliteration, and that line might have had the same literal meaning, but the meaning the audience/reader received would have been much less passionate.

Another notable feature of this speech is its use of the rhyming couplet. Why does Shakespeare resort to the more formally structured rhyming couplet here, rather than his usual blank verse? Again, the choice of form is related to the content of the play itself. Helena uses the form of the rhyming couplet over and over again throughout the entire play (just a few instances: 1,1,180-193; 2,2,94-106; 3,2,146-162). This formal regularity relates to Helena’s character. Helena, unlike the other characters, remains steadfast in her original passions: she loves Demetrius, and this is unchanging. Similarly, her speech patterns do not markedly change; she returns over and over again to the same form of rhyming couplet, particularly in incidences of extreme passion.

This leads one to ask: how (or why) does this form relate to instances of passion? One answer might be that when Helena is excited (or disturbed), she falls back on the order provided by the more rigorous form of the rhyming couplet to aid her in expressing a point. Rather than thinking on her feet, she merely follows the pattern of the speech, relying on an already-provided form to guide her. At other times, when she is more ‘stable’, she seems to restrict her use of the rhyming couplet (see 2,1,229-234; 3,2,193-220) and is able to deliver her ideas without the ‘crutch’ that rhyme provides.

Just as Helena exhibits the linguistic trait of ‘following’ (in this case, following a particular speech pattern) she also ‘follows’ in her physical actions. She literally follows Demetrius around the forests outside Athens. It seems that there is (again) a parallel to be drawn between her language and her actions. Rather than creating her own path she follows a course determined by another. In this way, her speech patterns reflect her personality. But, the further she demarcates herself from following Demetrius around, the more variation, and individuality, is provided in her speech patterns (the long speech of 3,2,193-220 is a good example of this).

In lines 138 and 139 of the speech, Helena uses the word ‘lord’ to refer to Lysander, and subsequently, calls herself a ‘lady’. With the use of lord and lady (two words generally used as indications of dignity or class) it seems that Helena is attempting to draw attention to an affinity that lies between herself and Lysander. She hopes that he will recognize that she, like him, is a dignified person, and will end the cruel charade of feigned love that she believes he is perpetrating. In addition to the meaning of these two words, they are both stressed, and together they create an instance of alliteration (albeit a small one). Again, through the use of stresses, Shakespeare heightens the meaning of the speech through by formal means.

As we have seen (even in this small fragment), Shakespeare uses a rather homogenous mixture of both literal meaning and linguistic form to deliver the content of his plays. Though (for obvious reasons) the use of literal meaning the more prevalent of the two, a full reading of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (as of any Shakespearean work) entails that the reader take into account the effect of form on content.

William Shakespeare wrote A Midsummer Night’s Dream as an exercise in imagination. This point is exemplified when Theseus says, “The lunatic, the lover, and the poet/Are of imagination all compact.” (5.1.7-8) Within the world of this play, both the lunatic and the lover are present and Shakespeare himself plays the part of the poet. This theme is expressed continually in his use of imaginative language. Shakespeare also takes an imaginative approach with the structure of the play, as the different parts are dissimilar in length to those found in many works, and they include supplementary types of scenes not commonly found in the typical play. Metaphors, such as those of Theseus and Hippolyta, the flower, the forest, time of day, and the play-within-a-play, provide more ways in which Shakespeare can express his imagination. Also, the conflicts between the different characters, like Oberon and Titania or Lysander and Demetrius, are far from commonplace; they are quite creatively wrought. The imagination of a poet is expressed throughout the play via the language, structure, metaphorical imagery, and conflict the playwright uses.

Upon first reading or seeing a Shakespearean play, one notices the vast difference in the language he uses as compared to the language we use today. The language used in this play, however, in addition to its Elizabethan tropes, is very imaginative and dreamy, which adds to the overall effect of surrealism Shakespeare creates. The poetry of the lines is filled with creativity and imagery abounds. Both the overt and subtle changes in language from one character to the next indicate the richness with which Shakespeare paints the picture of his play.

The art of Shakespeare’s poetry and prose comes from his use of original figurative technique. He imaginatively likens the moon to a silver bow that will witness Theseus and Hippolyta’s marriage (1.1.9-11). Using another simile, he calls love a “waggish boy,” who is “perjured everywhere.” (1.1.240-241) Imaginative expressions permeate the play, such as when Oberon commands Puck to get the flower “Ere the leviathan can swim a league.” (2.1.174) A fairy delivers a poem to Puck when he asks where she is going:

Over hill, over dale,
Thorough bush, thorough brier,
Over park, over pale,
Thorough flood, thorough fire,
I do wander everywhere,
Swifter than the moon’s sphere;
And I serve the Fairy Queen,
To dew her orbs upon the green.
The cowslips tall her pensioners be.
In their gold coats spots you see:
Those be rubies, fairy favors;
In those freckles live their savors. (2.1.2-13)
This passage illustrates beautifully Shakespeare’s command of imagery, rhyming, and verse. Shakespeare also uses his wit in creating nasty pokes between his characters. Lysander calls Demetrious a “spotted and inconstant man” (1.1.110), and Puck calls Lysander a “lack-love… [a] kill-courtesy.” (2.2.83) Whether in figures of speech, formal verse, or witty repartee between characters, Shakespeare’s command of language serves to create an intriguing environment and is perhaps best exemplified in its use of imagery.

Shakespeare continues to flex his imaginative muscle in his use of imagery throughout the play. The surrealistic qualities of the play’s atmosphere become magnified by Shakespeare’s central images. Examples of masterful central imagery abound, such as when Lysander speaks of Phoebe, the moon, “Decking with liquid pearl the bladed grass,” (1.1.211) or when Theseus refers to “The iron tongue of midnight,” (5.1.354) telling all present that it is late into the evening. These words evoke an extravagantly dreamlike world which then becomes lavish backdrop for the characters’ “play.”

Differences in characters’ language patterns represent the few classes present within the play. As is true with many Shakespearean plays, the common workers speak in prose, whereas the more educated characters speak in verse. A spectacular difference within this specific play is the constant misuse of words by the craftsmen: “The same defect,” (3.1.35) instead of “effect;” “I will aggravate my voice,” (1.2.74) instead of “moderate,” and “we may rehearse most obscenely” (1.2.98-99), which is a mistake, though it is not clear what Bottom meant to say. The lovers and other non-labor-class human characters speak in verse, which often rhymes and is usually written in iambic pentameter. Even when speaking only about everyday matters, they still speak in verse. Shakespeare’s differentiation of characters and class through language is ingenious in that the play need not rely completely on a director or actors to interpret what the playwright has already made intrinsic within the language. This ordering of language continues to be seen in the metaphorical underpinnings of the play, as well.

The metaphors in the play serve to create both order and disorder. Theseus and Hippolyta represent order. They come in only at the beginning and the end. This creates an orderly frame for the play, even among the disorder of the action. They are present only in the light of day, the mornings before and after the midsummer’s night, and serve as a perfect contrast to the out-of-control atmosphere in the dark wood. As king and soon-to-be queen, Theseus and Hippolyta always retain control of their environment, whereas the very experience of the characters in the forest scenes is one of utter confusion. Theseus and Hippolyta serve as metaphor for the ordered world of society; what one is expected to do versus the crazy world of love and fantasy is then clearly distinguished.

The confusing way in which the play proceeds is caused by one of the more central metaphors, the flower called “love-in-idleness,” (2.1.168) by Oberon. This is the flower that is the cause of all the confusion and thus is in utter contrast to Theseus and Hippolyta. The flower symbolizes the fickle, unreasoning nature of love. Love, according to Shakespeare, confuses those who take it too seriously, the lovers, and humiliates those whose love is misplaced, such as is Titania’s for the Indian boy. Although Oberon may not be blameless, by virtue of his status as fairy king, he is mercifully allowed to remain above punishment. The flower metaphor of love-in-idleness reflects on the larger metaphor of setting present in the play.

The most central metaphorical conflicts in A Midsummer Night’s Dream are the forest versus the city and morning versus night. The forest represents mystical powers and lawlessness. The latter is shown when Lysander is speaking of the need to go through the forest to get to his aunt’s house where “the sharp Athenian law/Cannot pursue” (1.1.157-163) them. The city, like Theseus and Hippolyta, represents order, as is demonstrated when one compares the types of scenes that take place in either setting. The city is where people get married, where they discuss things civilly, and where reality is not blurred. In the forest, reality often fades to fantasy, magic distorts perceptions, and confusion reigns supreme.

With light and dark we see a similar situation. Light is representative of order, one is able to see clearly when it is light outside, and darkness comes to mean disorder, one’s vision and grasp of one’s surroundings becomes blurred or obscured (as by magic). Throughout history many peoples have categorized forests as dark, foreboding places. This is highlighted in the play with darkness having the same metaphorical meaning as the forest. Cities were viewed as bright havens of commerce. Dazzlingly colorful images abounded as opposed to the dark images of urban sprawl given out today. Clearly Shakespeare points out the parallels between the dark and the forest and the light and the city. After the heartbreak and distress of the forest, the lovers become happy again once the scene switches back to that of the city.

The final metaphor to be touched on is the skit performed by the craftsmen. It acts as a simplified symbol for A Midsummer Night’s Dream itself. Both the craftsmen’s mini-play and the real one are driven by strong emotions. The plays are also presented comically. In the mini-play, the actors, especially Bottom, take themselves very seriously but are awful at what they do. For example, Bottom comically boasts of being able to “roar that [he] will do any man’s heart good to hear [him]. [He] will roar that [he] will make the Duke say, ‘Let him roar again, let him roar again.’” (2.1.64-67) The hilarious ineptitude of the actors when performing is expressed clearly in a short interchange between Theseus and Demetrius:
THESEUS: I wonder if the lion be to speak.
DEMETRIUS: No wonder, my lord. One lion may, when many asses do. (5.1.152-154)
Here Shakespeare has poked fun at the four overly serious lovers who also make foolsof themselves in the forest. Within the skit, Pyramus and Thisbe face parental disapproval, just as Lysander and Hermia do. The confusion of the four lovers in the forest is represented by the confusion caused by the lion’s tearing up the mantle of Thisbe. Including a synoptic version of his play acts as metaphor to heighten the impact of the action and add to the comic tension.

Another way in which Shakespeare expresses his imaginative prowess is through his manipulation of the structure of the play. While the five elements of structure do occur in the order most commonly found in plays, the parts each receive variant degrees of attention. First, the exposition instead of the rising action is the longest section of the play. The exposition runs from Act I, Scene I to Act II, Scene I, roughly 10 pages in the book I read, whereas the rising action, running from Act II, Scene II to Act III, Scene I, is only six pages. This unorthodox approach allows Shakespeare more time to develop his mystical world and to keep the action flowing, as the audience is constantly either being introduced to new characters or being moved speedily along to the climax. As discussed as a metaphor previously, Shakespeare includes an entire scene (Act V, Scene I) at the end of the play that is seemingly unrelated to the central parts of the play. The playwright may have done this to help end his play on a strong note. The play, without this scene, would end in an ordinary manner common to most romantic comedies, with the main characters getting married and everyone living happily ever after. Shakespeare’s approach accomplishes a great comedic ending while avoiding the cliché.

Despite the comedic genius in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, conflict remains a focal issue. All stories are based on it and it is by conflict that they live or die. Ironic conflict abounds when Hermia and Helena start to fight. The fighting begins because of a lack of self-confidence on the part of both. Hermia feels slighted because Helena is taller and she herself is short. She cannot reason as to why else Lysander would have fallen for Helena so suddenly. Helena’s self-confidence is a major focus of her character’s part in the play. She is the character the audience will come to know the best, as she opens herself up to public self-scrutiny. She cannot understand why Demetrius, who was once engaged to her, no longer loves her but loves Hermia instead. This creates a feeling of inadequacy in her that is present the rest of the play. Even in the end, she still seems to be the focus of some cruel joke, since Demetrius’s love is magically induced and therefore unnatural.

Lysander and Demetrius fight in the beginning when they both love Hermia, and towards the end, as well, when they both love Helena. They become exemplars of two boasting boys trying to curry favor with those around them, in some cases, the women they seek, in others, the attention of royalty. During the skit in Act V, for example, they trade witty comments in the presence of Theseus. “No die, but an ace, for him; for he is but one,” (5.1.301) is an example of Demetrius’s quick wit as he puns on the word die. Throughout the mini-play Lysander injects small comments which do not flatter his character but show his need to try and match Demetrius, “Less than an ace, man; for he is dead, he is nothing,” (5.1.302-303) he says following Demetrius’s prior comment. Demetrius is portrayed as a fickle man. He was once in love with, and even engaged to, Helena. Shakespeare does not go into detail as to why Demetrius has changed, but it is this changeability in affection that creates the love triangle and ultimately throws the characters out of balance; the disequilibrium between the players is momentous for a play which is all about the balancing of its characters. Lysander then seems to be in the right in criticizing Demetrius, but as is true with children, just because the other is right does not mean the first is any more mature about it.

The two men fight while it is morning and while they are in town, proof that Shakespeare feels the lunacy common to love oversteps all bounds, especially those of order. Lysander and Demetrius go on to fight again while in the forest, though their subject is different. It is eventually through their own hotheadedness that Puck is able to lure them away from each other and solve the situation.

LYSANDER: Where art thou, proud Demetrius? Speak thou now.
PUCK (Mimicking Demetrius): Here, villain, drawn and ready. Where art thou?
LYSANDER: I will be with thee straight.
PUCK: Follow me, then,
To plainer ground. (3.2.402-404)
With the love triangle finally sorted out and everyone back in town and married, the two boys pipe down and resort to trying to outdo each other via wit as opposed to swords. With their wives under their belts they move on to trying to impress Theseus and Hippolyta.

Conflict also erupts in the fairy world of the play. Oberon and Titania have a seemingly arbitrary fight that threatens to disrupt their entire kingdom. Oberon’s desire for the beautiful Indian boy to be his knight outweighs his love for Titania, which sets off the tumultuous events in the forest that evening. Without the Indian boy, none of the love mix-ups would have happened. It is because of Oberon’s jealous desire for revenge on Titania that he has Puck find the flower of love in the first place. Titania is the more gracious of the two and invites Oberon to a dance, which he turns down, stating his desire for the boy.

TITANIA: If you will patiently dance in our round
And see our moonlight revels, go with us;
If not, shun me, and I will spare your haunts.
OBERON: Give me that boy and I will go with thee.
TITANIA: Not for thy fairy kingdom. (2.1.140-144)
Oberon seems to be a greedy brute but only a little further on in the play, he acts generously and tries to help the four hopelessly muddled lovers. His character is confusing. Though he starts out brutish, during the course of taking his revenge, he takes pity on both Helena and, later, on Titania herself, as he feels remorse that he has paired her with an ass: “Her dotage now I do begin to pity.” (4.1.45) There is not much to say about Titania’s conflicts, as she is altered for much of the play, and, therefore, does not have the chance to express her true feelings to the audience. Oberon emerges, therefore, as the centrally conflicted character in the play’s parallel imaginative world.

All of the conflicts of the play evolve from one major event: Egeus’s entrance and statement to Theseus. Egeus’s action is the cornerstone of the conflict between Lysander and Demetrius, but also forces the action forward since the characters and audience are then dragged off into the forest where all of the subplots will finally collide. Hermia, in the position of the classic Renaissance-era woman, has no choice as to whom she marries and is thus forced to marry Demetrius. Egeus is one of the few characters who does not fit with the dreamy quality present throughout the play. He is cold and does not care about the true love Hermia feels for Lysander. This poses the conflict of love’s disturbance by those with no quality of imagination or love of their own. Egeus has no commonality with the rest of the characters who are unified by the traits of love and imagination. Egeus then could be seen as the ultimate evil underlying the play.

Poor, lovesick Helena pursues her Demetrius throughout the play, much to the dismay of the audience, but what is theater without drama? She is a character the audience can truly come to understand as her emotions are laid bare for all to see. Her misery and humiliation at her betrothed’s rejection and then pursuit of her childhood playmate is so unanswerable that she refuses to give her love and spends her time chasing Demetrius. Eventually, through magic, her lover is restored to her, though the audience is left to decide for themselves whether unnatural (fairy-driven) love is as good as the real thing.

Shakespeare is renowned as one of the best writers in all of literature. His imaginative use of language, metaphor, structure, and conflict to create plays which are magical and enduring remains unparalleled. Shakespeare’s remarkable wit in A Midsummer Night’s Dream show’s the depth of his mastery in literary techniques and in human understanding.

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