This passage from A Midsummer Night’s Dream occurs near the resolution of the play, when unions between lovers are being strengthened and the different worlds of the play are in the process of becoming reconciled. To facilitate the typical harmonious denouement of a Shakespearian comedy, the diverse subplots and imaginative worlds that exist within the drama must come together, resulting in a comedic closure in which harmony reigns.
The appearance of two different sets of characters that belong to the development of two different subplots in this extract illustrates Shakespeare’s wider practice in the comedy: that of orchestrating numerous subplots, which all terminate at the conclusion of the play with marriage, celebration and harmony. The plot strands featured in this passage – the love battles between Lysander and Hermia, and Demetrius and Helena; and the preparations by the group of mechanicals, led by Nick Bottom, to stage a play, – constitute only two of the four subplots to be found in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
The story that provides the context and impetus for much of the action in the play is the impending marriage of Theseus of Athens to Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, and later its celebration. Theseus and his court in ancient Greece provide the frame for the play, and Theseus stands in judgement of the affairs of the exponents of the courtly world. It is he who establishes the tone of the play at the outset: “Now, fair Hippolyta, our nuptial hour / Draws on apace. Four happy days bring in / Another moon” (I. i. -3), and also he who summarises the trend for order at the end: “Lovers, to bed; ’tis almost fairy time /… A fortnight hold we this solemnity / In nightly revels and new jollity” (V. i. 357-363). A fourth subplot centres on the fairy kingdom, and particularly the quarrel between Oberon and Titania. The magical aspects involved in the plots of the aristocrats and the mechanicals derive from this source, and the mythical and altogether unreal dimension of this realm allows Shakespeare to weave together different plots into a coherent whole without having to give it the semblance of ‘reality’.
It is the sudden absence of this illusory world in the lives of both the aristocrats and of Bottom that provides the subject for the passage in the fourth act, as both groups ponder whether it has all been a dream: “It seems to me / That yet we sleep, we dream. ” (IV. i. 192-3) A Midsummer Night’s Dream weaves together three diverse worlds to create one consistent but essentially timeless universe.
The two young sets of lovers are representative of the aristocratic court of ancient Athens, and as such are subject to the rules and conventions by which the court is governed. The rustic population of the Elizabethan English countryside is presented through the depiction of the mechanicals, of which Bottom is the most prominent character. These two diverse groups, with lifestyles, language and habits that differ wildly, find themselves subject to the same puissant force of fairyland and its representatives.
This is a realm rooted in neither ancient Greece nor the Elizabethan era; it transcends the bounds of time. Oberon and Titania, who preside over this unworldly realm, are the “parents and original” of the “spring, the summer, / The childing autumn, angry winter”,(act II, scene I, lines 111-2); they also exercise complete control over “the human mortals” (II. i. 101). Thus two polarised social classes are united in this passage, as in the whole of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, by the operations of the enchanted fairyland and its inhabitants.
The passage Shakespeare’s comedy juxtaposes these representatives of such diverse social classes. The young aristocrats belong to a socially produced world of the court, over which Theseus presides as the paragon of order. In the lines preceding the selected passage, Theseus not only seeks to impose order, in the form of the social institution of marriage, upon the natural chaos of love outside the constraints of the court: “For in the temple by and by with us / These couples shall eternally be knit” (IV. i. 79-180); but he also dismisses the unworldly fairy kingdom in favour of the safe, explicable domain of the court: “he did bid us follow to the temple. ” (IV. i. 195). Bottom, however, is subject to no such codes of conduct – he is a rustic character who follows only his basic instincts. He is a weaver and a member of a class of tradesmen and manual labourers – “Hard-handed men that work in Athens here, / Which never laboured in their minds” (V. I. 72), and as his name suggests, he occupies a low social status.
The juxtaposing of the different groups of characters in the passage from A Midsummer Night’s Dream accentuates the chasm between the cultures of different social groups, and heightens the comedy of Bottom’s responses when contrasted with the sophisticated language of the aristocrats to the same mystical circumstances. As would be expected, the status of each character in society determines his mode of speech. Bottom, as a low-status character, speaks in prose, a form usually reserved by the playwright for those of a low social standing.
Throughout A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Bottom, along with his fellow mechanicals, has been established as a clown-like figure of fun. The incident with the ass’ head, for example, indicates that Bottom is a comically absurd character, with little intellect: “If I had enough wit to get out of this wood, I have enough to serve mine own turn”, (III. i. 141-3). His frequent use of nonsensical banter: “I pray you commend me to Mistress Squash, your mother, and to Master Peascod, your father” (III. i. 178-9), ensures that he is portrayed as something of an idiot.
It therefore comes as no surprise to the audience that his discourse, in which he seeks to make sense of the magical experience from which he has supposedly ‘awoken’, is muddled, confused and unfocused. The irrelevant references to the pageant due to be staged by the mechanicals: “When my cue comes, call me, and I will answer. My next is ‘most fair Pyramus’. ” (IV. i) contrast to the composed, albeit slightly confused, responses of the young lovers, and compound Bottom’s status as an unintelligent fool.
Because he is uneducated Bottom tries, but fails, to articulate his feelings: “Methought I was – there is no man can tell what. Methought I was, and methought I had – but man is but a patched fool if he will offer to say what methought I had. ” (IV. i. ). The only means by which he can gain full expression is through the inept and unprofessional staging of the labourers’ play (incidentally, a play that sits in sharp contrast to the well-written performance that the audience are now watching): ” I will get Peter Quince to write a ballad of this dream.
It shall be called ‘Bottom’s Dream’, because it hath no bottom, and I will sing it in the latter end of a play, before the Duke. ” (IV. i. ). In contrast, the verse of the young lovers is eloquent and flowing, with an imaginative expression which is entirely fitting for their social status. Demetrius’ words are poetic and laden with rich imagery: “Like far off mountains turned into clouds” (IV. i. 186-7), and the lines spoken by Helena, although referring to her emotional situation, allude to her material circumstances: “I have found Demetrius like a jewel, / Mine own and not mine own. (IV. i. 191-1). Yet because the characters who speak these lines are less well-developed than Bottom, who is the most substantial persona in the play, the audience engages less with them than with Bottom’s colloquial, endearing and accessible modes of expression. Lysander and Demetrius are little more than ‘types’ with little complex characterisation; Helena and Hermia are more substantial characters, and Hermia in particular is possessed of some drive and energy: How low am I, thou painted maypole? Speak, How low am I? I am not yet so low But that my nails can reach unto thine eyes. III. ii. 297-9); but it is Bottom who wins the audience’s favour because he is such a well-rounded character, and not limited to a mere embodiment of a particular theory or moral standpoint as Theseus is. He is a tangible person, made up of base and earthly instincts possessed by all mankind, and has the humour, albeit often unintended, to make the audience identify with him. Furthermore, he is privileged by his unique insight into the fairytale world inhabited by Titania and her fairies – the only human in the play to be granted such an insight.
The contrasts between these species of character – their difference in language, the varying depths of characterisation and the general class divide – make for a passage which is arresting in its dramatic presentation. When the fairy realm which has sustained both groups of characters for several acts is suddenly withdrawn, those who were once in its power are left confused and unsettled. Their experiences of the unworldly are compared to, indeed presumed to be, a dream: “I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream past the wit of man to say what dream it was. (IV. i. ). Shakespeare, through the enunciation of his characters, draws a subtle parallel between the evanescence of dreams, and that of love, which is a prominent theme of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The aristocrats voice an awareness of the inconstancy of love – it is frail, temperamental and fickle: I wot not by what power- But by some power it is – my love to Hermia, Melted as the snow, (MND, VI. i. 163-5). The already unstable force of love is even more vulnerable to change in the fairy kingdom, where there are few guides to behaviour.
Away from the court, relationships are subject to mood or fancy rather than to any notions of ‘proper’ behaviour: “Tarry, rash wanton” (II. i. 63), and so the fairy realm is not conducive to the settled human institution of marriage. Thus Theseus orders the removal of the couples to Athens, where order can once again reign over the disordered experience of love. The advantages of residing in the social world are made patent by setting exponents of this social world within an undomesticated and irresponsible fairy realm.
In the comedic tradition, the stability that social institutions deliver is glorified. At the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, all parties are seen to benefit from the institution of marriage; even the fairy king and queen, whose quarrel has lasted the entire length of the play, are reconciled at the end in a heterosexual harmony: “Now thou and I are new in amity,” (IV. I. 86). The conclusion of the play asserts man’s concord with the world, and the neat union of different worlds:
While these visions did appear; And this weak and idle theme, No more yielding but a dream A Midsummer Night’s Dream challenges the audience’s sense of imagination and perception by placing the intellectual and worldly realism of the court next to the mystical qualities of a fairy tale. It raises and explores the issues of love, reason, class, the place of art and the wisdom of social institutions, but ultimately Shakespeare leaves it to the audience to form their own judgements on these matters.
The play carries a deep significance to man, as we are made to examine our own notions of truth and reality, notions that underpin all human interaction: The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling, Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven, And as imagination bodies forth The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing A local habitation and a name. (V. i. 12-17).