Undoubtedly one of his most well-known comedies, the very title of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream tempts viewers to dismiss the production as mere fabrication. This option is offered explicitly in the final act of the play in which Puck recommends to the audience that if the actors have offended them, they should consider the production no more real than a dream. In the play, the phenomenon of dream bridges the divide between the real and spirit worlds and functions to effect character transformation. Having undergone a metamorphosis of personality and opinion, the characters are able to depart the dream world and return to the city where these changes aid in securing their joyful marriages.
At the play’s opening the strictly lawful city of Athens, historically comparable to Shakespeare’s 17th century rule of law, hinders reasonable perception with nearly all characters experiencing obstructed vision. Almost everyone sees narrowly, through an equally limiting and limited group of assumptions about status, beauty, and romance. The characters each see separate versions of reality and strongly believe that their version is resoundingly correct. For example, in the very first act Hermia laments that her father should see her preference for a husband through her eyes, but Theseus assures her that she must consider things through Egeus’s more experienced and authoritative point of view.
Chief troublemaker Oberon lures the four lovers away from the rigidly structured society of Athens and into the forest, an obscure paradise where phenomena such as status challenges and sexual complications ensue through the outlet of dream in a positive, therapeutic fashion. The characters leave a strict, severe environment in which they are unable to attain their heart’s desires in favor of a part of nature where social norms do not pertain. Both in nature and dream, they can embrace the illogical to help them enter a curative return to chaos.
Oberon then compels Puck to instigate ordeals that will help the characters to undergo personal transformation. Through these seemingly improbable ordeals, a status reversal occurs between Helena and Hermia in their intense argument. The women are brought from a high status as potential wives down to a demeaning rank as they bicker in an unladylike fashion; they even come close to socially degrading physical combat.
Status reversal also occurs between Bottom and Titania, for which the status swap is coupled with sexual encounters resulting in an amusing yet meaningful demotion of standing for Titania and a short-lived rise in status for Bottom. The transitory adjustment of status between both pairs of characters serves to impart them with the wisdom of what could have been. This shows them the error of their ways and gives Oberon the peace of mind that they will assume their “natural” pairings now that they are aware of what happens when they fail to do so.
Now that these transformations have taken place and the characters understand the implications of breaking the status quo, the dream ends. The lovers return to their proper mates ready to replace the beneficial chaos that occurred in the forest with the social formality of marriage in Athens. The insights gained in the forest have metamorphosed the romantic desires of the Athenian lovers. They will now be able to obey the laws of their city which, after the transformation of all characters, have been relaxed substantially to the benefit of all. Theseus overbears Egeus’s will and blesses Lysander and Hermia’s formerly prohibited nuptials.
At the beginning of the play in still-strict Athens, the characters react to conscious social pressures by turning to the unconscious to seek transformation. They flee from an oppressive atmosphere to escape from society to nature. They then return to the changed society, completing a cycle that has offered therapeutic transformation to all involved. Helena can reconcile with her true love Demetrius, and Lysander and Hermia are finally afforded their happily-ever-after. These changes would not have been possible without the lovers’ remedial transformation that took place in the forest. Had they not stumbled into the powerful and curative dream world, the lovers would not have ended up in their satisfying romantic couplings in now-reformed Athens.
Puck’s epilogue serves to deliver a final confusion of reality and illusion to the audience. Just as Oberon mended his mischief by sorting out the romantic entanglement of the four lovers, Puck insists in the final act that if audiences dismiss the whimsical nature of the play as no more than a manifestation of the subconscious, “all [will be] mended” and he will “restore amends” to potentially affronted theatergoers. Audiences are left to ponder the meaning of Shakespeare’s emblematic dream with the play’s thought-provoking message concerning the sensation fresh in their heads.
 Shakespeare, William. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, ed. Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen (New York: Modern Library, 2008).
Josette Corazza (Feb. 2018)