A Midsummer Night’s Dream is primarily a humorous play, but it also presents a greater variety of tone than may at first appear. The opening scene, for instance, begins with a conflict that has very serious stakes. When Theseus forces Hermia to choose between an unwanted marriage with Demetrius, and either life as a nun or death if she rejects that marriage, the audience may wonder if they’re watching a tragedy rather than a comedy. Hermia isn’t the only character faced with a difficult love situation. Lysander risks losing his true love, Hermia. So does Helena, who longs for Demetrius. The strife extends to the fairy realm as well, where a jealous rift has opened between Oberon and Titania. But by the conclusion of Act V, all of the lovers have settled on their matches, the amorous discord has resolved into marriage, and Oberon closes the play with a magical blessing for the well-matched lovers. Whereas the play begins with a serious tone, it ends on a romantic, reassuring tone.
Though the play does flirt with seriousness, romance, and enchantment, the overriding tone of Midsummer is humorous, even satiric. Shakespeare threads humor throughout the play, and particularly in the scenes featuring Bottom and the other Mechanicals as they rehearse their adaptation of “Pyramus and Thisbe.” Aside from being amusingly incompetent thespians, Bottom and company lack the formal eloquence of the Athenian nobles and the fairies, often mispronouncing and even misusing words. The comic relief of the Mechanicals, which Shakespeare first introduces in Act I, scene ii, amplifies into full-on farce in Acts II through IV, when fairy mischief creates much chaos in a very short amount of time. The farce of the mixed-up lovers functions to alleviate the emotional gravity that characterized the play’s opening, and the amplification of confusion leads to a satisfying and romantic resolution in the final act. In the end, the variation in tone lends Midsummer a greater degree of emotional complexity than audiences might expect from a comedy.