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A Midsummer Night’s Dream

William Shakespeare
Main Ideas

Themes

Main Ideas Themes

Mischief

In Midsummer, mischief is primarily associated with the forest and the fairies who reside there. Accordingly, the fairies of traditional British folklore are master mischief makers. The trickster fairy Puck (also known as Robin Goodfellow) is the play’s chief creator of mischief. Puck’s reputation as a troublemaker precedes him, as suggested in the first scene of Act II, where an unnamed fairy recognizes Puck and rhapsodizes about all the tricks Puck has played on unsuspecting humans. Although in the play Puck only retrieves and uses the magical flower at Oberon’s request, his mistakes in implementing Oberon’s plan have the most chaotic effects. Puck also makes mischief of his own accord, as when he transforms Bottom’s head into that of ass. Puck is also the only character who explicitly talks about his love of mischief. When in Act III he declares that “those things do best please me / That befall prepost’rously” (III.ii.), he effectively announces a personal philosophy of mischief and an appreciation for turning things on their head.

Transformation

Many examples of emotional and physical transformation occur in Midsummer. These transformations contribute to the play’s humorous chaos, and also make its happy ending possible. Most of the transformations that take place in the play derive from fairy magic, specifically the magic of Puck. Perhaps the most obvious example is when Puck assists Oberon in placing a charm on Titania and two of the Athenian lovers in order to transform their affections. Instead of helping the lovers, Puck’s meddling amplifies the tensions that already existed among them. Puck wreaks further havoc when he physically transforms Bottom, “translating” his head into the head of a donkey. Bottom’s transformation inspires terror among Bottom’s companions, who fear that his change bears the marks of a devil. Although these transformations initially stimulate conflict and fear, they ultimately help to restore order. By the end of the night, the Athenian lovers all end up in their proper pairings and are able to return safely to Athens. Likewise, after Titania awakens from her bizarre coupling with Bottom, she and Oberon are able to settle their quarrel. The many transformations therefore enable the play’s happy ending.

Unreason

The many transformations that take place in Midsummer give rise to a temporary suspension of reason. As night progresses in the forest, things cease to make sense. For example, Hermia falls asleep near Lysander but then wakes to find him gone. When she eventually finds him again, Lysander does the verbal equivalent of spitting in Hermia’s face: “Could not this make thee know / The hate I bear thee made me leave thee so?” (III.ii.). Completely floored by the sudden reversal of Lysander’s former love, Hermia senses a failure of reason: “You speak not as you think” (III.ii.). A more humorous version of unreason occurs when Bottom, recently crowned with the head of a donkey, finds himself nestling with Titania in her bower. Even though Bottom doesn’t know about his physical transformation, he’s self-aware enough to see the absurdity of the situation. When Titania professes her love for Bottom, he responds coolly: “Methinks, mistress, you should have little reason for that” (III.i.). By turns disturbing and amusing, these and other examples of unreason in the play function to amplify the chaos and confusion traditionally associated with fairies and the forest.

Reversal

Situations transform quickly into their opposites throughout the play. Most obviously, the charm Puck uses to transform the Athenian lovers’ affections creates sudden reversals of love and hate, and these reversals result in a breakdown of reason. The sudden reversal of Lysander’s affection for Hermia not only leaves his former lover stunned, but also shocks Helena, who suddenly finds herself being pursued by Lysander. All of the madcap foolery that plays out in the forest arises from Oberon’s original idea to affect just one strategic reversal. In Act II, when Oberon spies on Helena chasing after Demetrius, Helena comments that her pursuit reverses the natural order of things: “Apollo flies, and Daphne holds the chase. / The dove pursues the griffin; the mild hind / Makes speed to catch the tiger.” (II.i.) According to Helena, this state of affairs creates “a scandal for my sex.” Hearing Helena, Oberon promises to reverse the reversal, thereby restoring order: “Ere he do leave this grove / Thou shalt fly him, and he shall seek thy love” (II.i.).