Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.


The idea of contrast is the basic building block of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The entire play is constructed around groups of opposites and doubles. Nearly every characteristic presented in the play has an opposite: Helena is tall, Hermia is short; Puck plays pranks, Bottom is the victim of pranks; Titania is beautiful, Bottom is grotesque. Further, the three main groups of characters (who are developed from sources as varied as Greek mythology, English folklore, and classical literature) are designed to contrast powerfully with one another: the fairies are graceful and magical, while the craftsmen are clumsy and earthy; the craftsmen are merry, while the lovers are overly serious. Contrast serves as the defining visual characteristic of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with the play’s most indelible image being that of the beautiful, delicate Titania weaving flowers into the hair of the ass-headed Bottom. It seems impossible to imagine two figures less compatible with each other. The juxtaposition of extraordinary differences is the most important characteristic of the play’s surreal atmosphere and is thus perhaps the play’s central motif; there is no scene in which extraordinary contrast is not present.

The Forest

Much of the confusion and misdirection in A Midsummer Night’s Dream relies on characters’ placement in the forest. Lysander and Hermia meet in the cover of the woods at night to elope. Peter Quince suggests the players rehearse in the woods rather than in town so they can guarantee they won’t have an audience until they’re ready. Helena tells Demetrius to go to the woods under the pretense of stopping Hermia and Lysander, when really she intends to win back Demetrius’s love. All these characters seek the woods precisely for its ability to provide cover and seclusion from outside forces, especially those from the human realm of order and predictability. However, the disorder of the forest creates unintended consequences for the characters when the fairies get involved. Puck’s mischief thwarts the lovers’ plans, and he deliberately messes with Bottom’s theater company. Even before Puck begins playing tricks, the forest hides the lovers, leading Puck to accidentally give the potion to Lysander instead of Demetrius. Throughout the story, the forest is a place of confusion and concealment where things are not as they seem.

Eyes and Seeing

Early in the play, Helena pines for Demetrius with the words “love looks not with the eyes but with the mind.” Her jealous musing turns out to be an apt summary of the story ahead. Throughout the play, the characters consistently mention sight and eyes, both literally and metaphorically. The lovers describe the objects of their affections with the most generous terms of physical beauty, often doting on their eyes. Helena, conversely, shows her insecurity by comparing her appearance unfavorably to Hermia’s. When Helena and Hermia get into a fight and Helena and the men comment on Hermia’s height, Hermia vehemently tells Helena, “I am not yet so low/ But that my nails can reach into thine eyes.” In her rage, the first thing Hermia threatens is to claw at Helena’s eyes, marring both her sight and the way she is seen.

Sight is proven to be incredibly unreliable in the play, particularly under the influence of magic. The love potion must be applied to the eyes to work, causing the characters to see life differently. Lysander and Demetrius say opposite things to Helena and Hermia about their appearances depending on which woman they love at the time. Titania describes Bottom as a beautiful creature although he looks like a donkey. The play within a play emphasizes the limits of sight by giving Pyramus and Thisbe only a chink in a wall through which to see each other. They are in love, but they do not have the full picture of one another, echoing the vision of the enchanted lovers in the forest.