Study Guide

A Midsummer Night's Dream Themes

By William Shakespeare

  • Love

    Above all else, A Midsummer Night's Dream explores the nature of romantic love.  Its conclusion?  The pursuit of love has the capacity to make us irrational, foolish idiots. In the play, magic love juice causes characters to fall erratically in and out of love as they chase each other around the woods, and makes a Fairy Queen fall in love with a literal jackass. By literalizing the familiar cliché that "the course of true love never did run smooth," Shakespeare suggests that love really is an obstacle course that turns us all into madmen. Or in the immortal words of Pat Benatar: Love is a battlefield.

    Questions About Love

    1. What is the function of Oberon's "love juice" in the play?
    2. Explain how the fairies impact the various romantic relationships in A Midsummer Night's Dream.
    3. Discuss how Shakespeare portrays the nature of love in the play.
    4. Why does Titania fall in love with Bottom? 

    Chew on This

    Shakespeare's play suggests that we are all fickle and irrational creatures when it comes to love.

    The play is sympathetic toward a young person's right to choose a marriage partner based on love.

  • Art and Culture

    Throughout A Midsummer Night's Dream, a humble group of Athenian craftsmen (the Mechanicals) go all Inception on us and practice a play-within-the-play that they hope to stage at Theseus's wedding celebration. The play is Pyramus and Thisbe and its performance takes up nearly all of Act 5, Scene 1, where the craftsmen comically bumble their way through what's supposed to be a classic tragedy.  

    By focusing so much attention on this play-within-the-play, Shakespeare has ample time to reflect on his own art and to ask the following questions: What is it that makes good theater? Can anyone be an actor? What kind of person is an ideal audience member? Can uneducated commoners appreciate art? The answers to these questions can vary, but, for the most part, the performance of Pyramus and Thisbe functions as a parody of bad theater and reminds us that being a stage actor is craft that requires intellect and its own set of skills. 

    Questions About Art and Culture

    1. Discuss the overall function of the play-within-the-play. Why do you think Shakespeare included the Mechanicals' performance of Pyramus and Thisbe in A Midsummer Night's Dream?  How does the play-within-the-play allow Shakespeare to reflect upon the nature of the theater? 
    2. Compare and contrast the plot of Pyramus and Thisbe to A Midsummer Night's Dream. 
    3. When describing the Mechanicals, Philostrate calls them a group of "Hard-handed men that work in Athens here, / Which never labour'd in their minds till now" (5.1.72-73).  What exactly does Philostrate mean when he says this?  What does this comment suggest about his attitude toward the relationship between education, intellect, and the theater? 
    4. Shakespeare wrote A Midsummer Night's Dream around the same time he penned Romeo and Juliet, a play that's heavily influenced by the story of Pyramus and Thisbe.  Read Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet and then compare and contrast it to the Mechanicals' performance of Pyramus and Thisbe.

    Chew on This

    A Midsummer Night's Dream suggests that acting is a craft that requires intelligence, education, and skill.

    Although the Mechanicals' performance of Pyramus and Thisbe is unnecessary in terms of furthering the plot of A Midsummer Night's Dream, the play-within-the-play serves an important function because it allows Shakespeare to explore the nature of his own art.

  • Transformation

    Transformation is a very big deal in this play, which isn't so surprising because one of Shakespeare's main literary sources of inspiration is Ovid's Metamorphoses. In the third act of A Midsummer's Night Dream, Puck uses magic to turn Bottom's head into that of an ass (a.k.a. donkey).  Although this is the most obvious example of transformation, it's just one of many. Throughout the play, characters undergo a ton of physical and emotional changes—they fall in and out of love and change their minds about their friendships and the world in which they live. The natural world of the play is also subject to transformation—night turns into day, darkness turns to light, the moon waxes and wanes, and so on. 

    Questions About Transformation

    1. List the various types of transformations that occur in the play.  Do they all come as a result of magic?
    2. Why does Puck transform Bottom's head into that of a donkey?
    3. Why do you think the young Athenians are so vulnerable to transformation? 
    4. Discuss the relationship between love and transformation in the play.

    Chew on This

    When Titania falls in love with an "ass," the play reminds us that love can transform even the smartest person into a blind fool.

    Shakespeare's magic love juice is a lot like Circe's magic potion in Ovid's Metamorphoses—both concoctions have the ability to transform the desires of victims.

  • Gender

    Like many Shakespearean comedies (The Taming of the Shrew, for example), A Midsummer Night's Dream dramatizes gender tensions that arise from complicated familial and romantic relationships.  When the play opens, a young woman fights her father for the right to choose her own spouse, a duke is set to marry a woman he recently conquered in battle, and the King and Queen of Fairies are at war with each other, enacting a battle of the sexes so intense that it disrupts the natural world. And you thought MTV's Battle of the Sexes was intense.

    Throughout the play, Shakespeare also questions some stereotypes about traditional gender roles when it comes to romance. For example, while men are usually expected to be aggressive, women are expected to remain passive and docile. Of course, A Midsummer Night's Dream shows us that this isn't necessarily always the case—especially when you get magical love juice involved. We think it's awesome that Shakespeare wasn't afraid to poke fun at the absurdity of gender roles so many centuries ago... he really was ahead of his time. 

    Questions About Gender

    1. Why does Egeus want Duke Theseus to enforce the death penalty on Hermia?  What does this suggest about Egeus's attitude toward his daughter and women in general?
    2. "Your wrongs do set a scandal on my sex: / We cannot fight for love, as men may do; / We should be wooed and were not made to woo" (2.1.6).  What does Helena mean when she says this to Demetrius?  Do you think what she says rings true in the play?
    3. Oberon and Titania's fighting is often described as the ultimate "battle of the sexes."  Explain why the couple fights and discuss whether or not their brawls are a result of gender tensions.
    4. Is the tension between various men and women ever resolved in the play?  Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    Titania, Hermia, and Helena defy traditional gender stereotypes by aggressively pursuing love.

    Shakespeare makes a gendered argument in A Midsummer Night's Dream; while both Lysander's and Demetrius's madness can be explained by their enchantment, Hermia and Helena have no such excuse. Shakespeare argues that women are subject to a different view of reality when it comes to love.

  • Versions of Reality

    With so many different subplots in A Midsummer Night's Dream, we get a front-row seat to experience all the different ways each character perceives reality.  

    First, there are all the dream sequences, which help explain away some plot holes and add a gauzy mystery. But there's more to it than that—these differing perceptions of reality also extend to the characters' perspectives. 

    For example, Puck sees the mortal world as full of fools, and Theseus is certain fairies aren't real. In Lysander's book, if you don't have to fight for it, it isn't true love. These differing perspectives are central to the play, revealing that each man envisions his reality according to his circumstances, and that all these different realities can make things pretty darn complicated. 

    Questions About Versions of Reality

    1. What are the different functions of dreams in the play? Do dreams function to further the plot, or are they some kind of side commentary on imagination?
    2. What do we make of Theseus's perspective on reality?  How can we factor in Titania's aid of Theseus—as pointed out by Oberon—especially because Theseus doesn't believe in fairies? Is it possible to live in a practical reality and still allow a little room for fancy?
    3. Do lovers, poets, and madmen really have their own version of reality?  Is it a fanciful, false version, or is it just more deeply tied to human feeling than cold, hard facts?
    4. The young Athenians seem confused about the events of their night in the woods, but their stories match up, which seems to indicate that this whole thing was more than just a dream.  Does the actual truth of the event really matter, so long as a lot of people believe in it?

    Chew on This

    Dreams are a cop-out in A Midsummer Night's Dream.  They absolve the characters of responsibility for their foolishness and excuse Shakespeare from having to make the play at all sensible or meaningful.

    Shakespeare makes a gendered argument in A Midsummer Night's Dream; while both Lysander's and Demetrius's madness can be explained by their enchantment, Hermia and Helena have no such excuse.  Shakespeare argues that women are subject to a different view of reality when it comes to love.

  • Foolishness and Folly

    A Midsummer Night's Dream is a comedy, so it's going to have its fair share of slapstick humor—we've got a man with a donkey's head wandering around on stage for crying out loud. There's also a healthy dollop of dark humor too, like when Egeus gets absurdly mad at his daughter and decides to have her killed.  In the end, it's all two sides of the same coin—nothing, not even murder and death, is taken seriously here. Misunderstanding is as central to the play as any other element of plot. And since the play is all about how ridiculous love can be, no one can avoid embarrassing foolishness. That'd be like having sushi without rice—not quite right.

    Questions About Foolishness and Folly

    1. As we spend time with the young Athenian lovers, it becomes apparent that their love for each other seems silly and melodramatic.  Is Shakespeare implying that their love is particularly foolish (maybe because they're young), or that foolishness is naturally to be expected of any person in love?
    2. The Mechanicals are the target of a lot of Shakespeare's mockery.  Not only do they not know how a play is performed properly (meaning they lack societal finesse), but they don't even seem smart enough to figure out that they are being mocked.  What's the point of the Mechanicals' silliness and bumbling? 
    3. Lysander and Demetrius are enchanted for a good portion of the play, but they were at odds even before the magic kicked in. On the other hand, Hermia and Helena fight with each other and neither of them has been enchanted.  What, besides the magic pansy juice, can be used to explain the rash behavior of the youthful Athenians?
    4. One of Shakespeare's archetypes is "the fool" character, who can be relied upon for jokes and mischief, but also often provides some sharp personal or philosophical insight.  Is there such a character in A Midsummer Night's Dream?

    Chew on This

    When Shakespeare makes fun of the Mechanicals, he's making fun of uneducated commoners.

    The silliness of the Mechanicals isn't meant to degrade those characters or their social statuses. In fact, Shakespeare pursues a far more egalitarian course: the folly of the Mechanicalsconfused, misled, and misunderstood by each othermatches exactly that of the young Athenian lovers lost in the wood.

  • Man and the Natural World

    Part of the strength of A Midsummer Night's Dream is that we're not always sure where humans and the natural world—as two separate elements—fall in relation to each other. 

    Sometimes humans are part of the natural world, like women becoming fertile with the midsummer fest.  Other times the natural world seems alien to man because he has separated himself from it—especially with his urban life. Some Athenian workers want to rehearse a play in the woods to escape the city distractions, but all Puck needs to do to frighten them is pretend he's a regular woodland creature or element— a fire, a hound, or a bear—oh my!

    Even at the end of their crazy evening, the four young lovers decide to go back to Athens.  Life in the city may be plenty dramatic, but their courtly beds are no doubt better than the dirty forest floor. In this way, the natural world is an escape for man, but it's also a reminder of how good man has it in his other home.

    Questions About Man and the Natural World

    1. Titania describes how the natural world (including humans) has been disturbed by the quarrel between the fairies. Is man, as she argues, a part of the natural world?  Do humans see themselves in a different light, for instance, because they are more subject to the rules of court than of nature?
    2. When the Mechanicals all run away after first seeing Bottom transformed, Bottom thinks they meant to frighten him about the scary things in the wood.  Does the play assert that most of the things man is afraid of in the natural world are simply things he doesn't know about or understand?
    3. Is the natural world an escape for man from city life, or was city life created to help man escape the dangers of the natural world?  How does the environment change man? Do the characters behave differently in the city versus in the woods?
    4. The young Athenians' escape to the natural world seems to allow a suspension of reality (as in most of the pastorals).  Does this make the natural world less real or credible than the urban one?

    Chew on This

    When the Athenian lovers are in the forest, they aren't bound by courtly rules and therefore can pursue their urges as they desire. Unlike the city, the natural world is a free space, one that allows man to have his natural feelings without bottling them up or bureaucratizing them.

    The natural world is a tumultuous place of hedonism and madness.  The youth and the Mechanicals are enchanted and manipulated by the forest creatures and their only hope of returning to safety and sanity is in heading back to Athens. 

  • The Supernatural

    Magic is the delightful thread that runs through the tapestry of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Magic is about the supernatural elements of the mythic and fairy world (like Cupid's arrows on a starry night), but it's also a simpler, more natural force. There's the magic of love, the magic of the morning dew, and even the magic of poetry and art. 

    The play stresses perspective and eggs the reader on to see the world as a different place through each of the characters' eyes.  Each character has his or her own perspective, and so experiences the magic differently. Bottom finds his wondrous dreams to be magical, while the lovers, arguably the most impacted by magic, are totally oblivious to it. Titania finds magic in her love of a little boy, and Oberon embraces the magic of supernatural elements in the seemingly natural world.  Magic is certainly in the eye of the beholder.

    Questions About The Supernatural

    1. Are there distinctions here between white and black magic, and magic for fun or for harm? Is magic amoral?  (Think of Oberon's usage of magic to steal the orphan Titania swore to protect.)  Are there any indicators that magic has some sinister undertones?  Is it unnatural?
    2. Do the magical characters of the play care at all about the effect their actions have on others?  Do the magical characters even see others outside of the supernatural realm as sympathetic creatures, or are the humans just there to manipulate and mock?
    3. At the end of the play, Lysander returns to loving Hermia because he's gotten the remedy for the love juice, but Demetrius loves Helena because he remains enchanted.  Can magic be the basis for true love?  Is this another example of man being manipulated by magic, or is this magic helping the natural and right course of things?
    4. Is Shakespeare suggesting that magic actually exists in real life? Why might he have Puck, a magical creature, close the play with a suggestion that we can dismiss all this magic as if it were a dream?

    Chew on This

    In this play, Shakespeare suggests that magic is real.  It may not be the stuff of fairies, but it is present in the imagination.  Particularly for a poet, the world is a magical place, and A Midsummer Night's Dream's language, imagery, and wonder communicate that to the audience.

    The magical world exists in harmony with the natural world in A Midsummer Night's Dream—indeed, they are one and the same.