A Midsummer Night’s Dream

by: William Shakespeare

Style

The style of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is droll and exuberant. The play features ample wordplay, underscoring the nonsensical mischief of the plot. Take the scene where Lysander and Hermia walk through the forest, preparing to rest for the night. The couple improvises on the multiple meanings of the word “lie”: to sleep, to have sex, and to speak an untruth. Hermia jokes with Lysander about protecting her virtue: “Lie further off yet, do not lie so near” (II.ii.).” Lysander responds by clarifying and further complicating the word’s meaning, noting that once they are married, “Then by your side no bed-room me deny, / For lying so, Hermia, I do not lie” (II.ii.). The fact that the first syllable in Lysander’s name rhymes with “lie” only serves to heighten the humorous effect of the lovers’ wordplay. Similarly, in Act III, scene I, Bottom says ''I see their knavery: this is to make an ass of me; / to fright me, if they could.'' Bottom is using the word “ass” figuratively, as a synonym for fool. But the word literally applies as well, since Bottom’s head has been transformed into that of a donkey, or ass. The ample use of wordplay gives the play a sense of clever silliness, and maintains the comic mood even when the action is troubled. The audience may be so busy deciphering the many possible interpretations of the characters’ speech, we don’t get upset by the predicaments they find themselves in.

Shakespeare also uses poetic language to create melodramatic moments that both reinforce and mock the play’s central theme of romantic love. Oberon speaks some of the play’s most poetic passages when instructing Puck to use the love potion on Titania. Describing the flowers that blanket the bank where Titania sleeps, Oberon says, “Quite overcanopied with luscious woodbine, / With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine” (II.i.). The irony here is that Oberon reveals his tender feelings for his queen even as he plans to manipulate and humiliate her. Oberon’s other manipulations lead to some of the play’s most overwrought language, as the enchanted Lysander and Demetrius profess their love for Helena. Lysander vows that he would “run through fire” for her sake (II.ii.), and that Hermia, his former object of affection, now brings “deepest loathing” to his stomach (II.ii.). The lovers’ desperate passion creates comedy, as the audience knows their feelings come from a false source, but the hyperbolic language also raises the question of whether such fickle feelings as love can, indeed, be true.

Prose vs. Verse

Like Shakespeare’s other plays, the language of Midsummer consists of both verse and prose. Also like Shakespeare’s other plays, the division between verse and prose in Midsummer follows class lines, with the lower-class commoners demonstrating less refinement in their language. Thus the Athenian nobles and the fairies typically speak in verse, whereas the Mechanicals typically speak in prose. Shakespeare frequently uses the contrast between these modes of speaking for humor, as when Titania declares her love for the donkey-headed Bottom in sumptuous verse, only to be answered in Bottom’s common speech. The only instance where this class division between verse and prose gets reversed occurs during the performance of “Pyramus and Thisbe,” where the Mechanicals speak in verse and the nobles comment on the play in prose. Here again, Shakespeare uses the contrast for comedic effect, emphasizing just how absurd the results are when commoners attempt to adopt a nobler register.

Shakespeare also uses different types of verse to create contrast between the human and fairy nobility. Whereas the human nobles tend to speak in iambic pentameter, the fairies tend to speak in slightly shorter lines of iambic tetrameter. These shorter lines have a rhythm more closely associated with ballads and other song forms, and Shakespeare links the singsong quality of the meter to the fairies’ carefree, even mischievous nature. One particularly powerful example of how Shakespeare uses differences in meter to meaningful effect comes near the end of Act III, when Puck removes Lysander’s spell. Puck begins by speaking in very short, rhyming lines: “When thou wak’st, / Thou tak’st / True delight / In the sight” (III.ii.). As he continues, however, his lines get longer, ending with a line of unrhymed prose: “The man shall have his mare again, and all shall be well” (III.ii.). Of all the play’s characters, Puck most represents the shape-shifting magical world of the forest, and his progression from tight, rhymed verse to long, unrhymed prose signifies the end of fantasy and the return of the mundane.