HERMIA Help me, Lysander, help me; do thy best To pluck this crawling serpent from my breast. Ay me, for pity! What a dream was here! Lysander, look how I do quake with fear. Methought a serpent eat my heart away, And you sat smiling at his cruel prey. (2.2.152-157)
Hermia's dream is a mirror for reality; while Hermia sleeps, Lysander deserts her and renounces his love for her. In the dream, Hermia is abandoned (which is true), but she is also betrayed by Lysander. The dream is also a reflection for what's about to come. Hermia battles the snake (Helena) in the dream and in the actual wood, though Lysander is really at fault for letting Hermia get hurt, both in the dream world and in reality.
Act 3, Scene 2
OBERON Then crush this herb into Lysander's eye, Whose liquor hath this virtuous property, To take from thence all error with his might And make his eyeballs roll with wonted sight. When they next wake, all this derision Shall seem a dream and fruitless vision. And back to Athens shall the lovers wend, With league whose date till death shall never end. (3.2.387-394)
Oberon posits that this night's crazy events will seem like a dream tomorrow, which will hopefully cause the four Athenian lovers to forget everything and go back to Athens as proper pairs. The Athenians are thus able to choose their own version of reality – they can consider the night either real or a dream.
Act 4, Scene 1
OBERON And, gentle Puck, take this transformèd scalp From off the head of this Athenian swain, That he awaking when the other do May all to Athens back again repair And think no more of this night's accidents But as the fierce vexation of a dream. But first I will release the Fairy Queen. (4.1.65-71)
Oberon again hints that, if all of the young Athenians think of the past night as a dream, everything will be forgotten. This way, not only do the lovers have some easy resolution, but Puck and Oberon are absolved of any blame for their mischief and manipulation. The dream world, in this respect, is as much a remedy as an excuse.
Act 5, Scene 1
Puck (a.k.a. Robin Goodfellow)
PUCK Now the hungry lion roars, And the wolf behowls the moon, Whilst the heavy ploughman snores, All with weary task fordone. Now the wasted brands do glow, Whilst the screech-owl, screeching loud, Puts the wretch that lies in woe In remembrance of a shroud. Now it is the time of night That the graves, all gaping wide, Every one lets forth his sprite In the church-way paths to glide. And we fairies, that do run By the triple Hecate's team From the presence of the sun, Following darkness like a dream, Now are frolic. (5.1.388-407)
Puck draws attention back to the darkness of the play. In the courtly world, the feuds have ended, the lovers have all wed, and everything seems to be moving toward a happily-ever-after. Puck reminds us, though, that another reality still exists, one where nighttime is not for lovemaking and fairies, but for terrifying animals and the dead. Puck is the perfect candidate to make this reminder, as he is neither fairy nor human, but one who straddles both worlds and thus has an arguably more objective perspective about each of their versions of reality.
PUCK If we shadows have offended, Think but this, and all is mended: That you have but slumbered here While these visions did appear. And this weak and idle theme, No more yielding but a dream, Gentles, do not reprehend. If you pardon, we will mend. And, as I am an honest Puck, If we have unearned luck Now to scape the serpent's tongue, We will make amends ere long, Else the Puck a liar call. So, good night unto you all. Give me your hands, if we be friends, And Robin shall restore amends. (5.1.440-455)
Puck's final speech is a good indication of where Shakespeare was in his writing career. This is not the best storyline he has created, but he writes it when he is at the peak of his comic form. In this way, it is a frothy piece, but beautifully written and worthwhile for that reason. While it does not meet the high standards of drama that his tragedies do, he would like to present it to you as a dream, which excuses him from creating a moving and amazing storyline and lets him just revel for a bit in the magic of his art as a poet.
THESEUS More strange than true. I never may believe These antique fables, nor these fairy toys. Lovers and madmen have such seething brains, Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend More than cool reason ever comprehends. 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 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. Such tricks hath strong imagination That, if it would but apprehend some joy, It comprehends some bringer of that joy. Or in the night, imagining some fear, How easy is a bush supposed a bear? (5.1.2-23)
Theseus points out that there is no single reality, but different realities depending on your perspective. In particular, the lover, the madman, and the poet all suffer from too much imagination, which distorts their versions of reality. The implication is that Theseus is without imagination, and so his version of reality is more practical and thus closer to the truth. Still, we know from Oberon's earlier speech that Titania has helped Theseus on more than one occasion, so he is as subject to magic as anyone else and might be more foolish than the lover, madman, and poet for not being able to see reality as broader than his narrow worldview would have it.
THESEUS "The battle with the Centaurs, to be sung By an Athenian eunuch to the harp." We'll none of that: that have I told my love In glory of my kinsman Hercules. "The riot of the tipsy Bacchanals, Tearing the Thracian singer in their rage." That is an old device, and it was played When I from Thebes came last a conqueror. "The thrice three Muses mourning for the death Of Learning, late deceased in beggary." That is some satire, keen and critical, Not sorting with a nuptial ceremony. "A tedious brief scene of young Pyramus And his love Thisbe; very tragical mirth." "Merry" and "tragical"? "Tedious" and "brief"? That is hot ice and wondrous strange snow! How shall we find the concord of this discord? (5.1.48-64)
All of the possible entertainments are art in some form or another, a retelling of "true" events for a different purpose. In this list, we see that art might also be the act of presenting different versions of reality. It is entertaining for the mind to stretch this way, to consider more than what comes naturally to one's own version of reality.
HIPPOLYTA But all the story of the night told over, And all their minds transfigured so together, More witnesseth than fancy's images And grows to something of great constancy, But howsoever strange and admirable. (5.1.24-28)
Hippolyta touches on an interesting element of reality: The more a story is repeated and confirmed from multiple sources, the more true it seems, no matter how wondrous it is. On one hand, it is about the power of numbers, but on the other, it's the same justification for the belief that the Emperor is wearing new clothes. If anything, her statement is proof that no version of reality is more real than another.