The English lecturers have been picking their favourite speeches and sonnets to mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. Here, Mark Brown ponders the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
When most people think about A Midsummer Night’s Dream, they usually think of a tale of lovers wronged, true love realised, magical fairies and a man with the head of a donkey. And, on the whole, they would be right. Critics often focus on the carnivalesque aspects as rigid Athenian society is disrupted by a holiday to mark the Duke’s marriage and the magical effects of the countryside. They also focus on the conventions of romantic comedy, many of which still hold true for the Rom-Coms we see at the cinema. The romance is found in the characters of Hermia and Lysander, who are in love with each other. Hermia’s father, however, wants her to marry Demetrius (for reasons of wealth and power). Demetrius is loved by Helena, but he’s just not interested. If Hermia does not conform to her father’s wishes she can, according to the Athenian law of Theseus, be killed or banished. So, Hermia and Lysander flee to the forest, pursued by the jealous Demetrius and the besotted Helena. Here they encounter the fairies (with their magical royal equivalents of the Athenian elite, Oberon and Titania). After lots of misunderstandings caused by magic potions, love triumphs and all the right people marry each other for all the right reasons, and order is restored.
I find the play fascinating for its exploration of dream and how Shakespeare relates it closely to the magic of theatre. This speech, from Theseus near the end of the play, reflects back on the moment when the lovers are discovered waking from their enchantment in the forest when Demetrius says
It seems to me
That yet we sleep, we dream. (Act IV, Scene I)
The theme of dreams here is carried from the enchantment of the fairies in the wood, to their awakening and then back to Athens, where its effects will be felt in the re-ordering of chaotic marriage arrangements into an acceptable order and the re-establishment of both Egeus’ and Theseus’ patriarchal authority. But first Theseus reflects on the nature of the stories of enchanted woods and fairies. After describing ‘these antique fables’, he considers the role of the poet (and, hence, the playwright) in fashioning stories to speak to the interests and experiences of his audience:
The lunatic, the lover and the poet
Are of imagination all compact:
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold,
That is, the madman: the lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt:
The poet’s eye, in 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. (Act V Scene I)
The poet’s pen, then, is what makes sense of a chaotic and incomprehensible world, which sometimes can only be explained by the actions of nature and magic. The writer is able to change the ‘airy nothing[s]’ of imagination into a recognisable world that will draw us in and persuade us, for the duration of the play, of the verisimilitude of the fictional world and the characters he has conjured by his own form of magic.