Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
“The course of true love never did run smooth,” comments Lysander, articulating one of A Midsummer Night’s Dream’s most important themes—that of the difficulty of love (I.i.134). Though most of the conflict in the play stems from the troubles of romance, and though the play involves a number of romantic elements, it is not truly a love story; it distances the audience from the emotions of the characters in order to poke fun at the torments and afflictions that those in love suffer. The tone of the play is so lighthearted that the audience never doubts that things will end happily, and it is therefore free to enjoy the comedy without being caught up in the tension of an uncertain outcome.
The theme of love’s difficulty is often explored through the motif of love out of balance—that is, romantic situations in which a disparity or inequality interferes with the harmony of a relationship. The prime instance of this imbalance is the asymmetrical love among the four young Athenians: Hermia loves Lysander, Lysander loves Hermia, Helena loves Demetrius, and Demetrius loves Hermia instead of Helena—a simple numeric imbalance in which two men love the same woman, leaving one woman with too many suitors and one with too few. The play has strong potential for a traditional outcome, and the plot is in many ways based on a quest for internal balance; that is, when the lovers’ tangle resolves itself into symmetrical pairings, the traditional happy ending will have been achieved. Somewhat similarly, in the relationship between Titania and Oberon, an imbalance arises out of the fact that Oberon’s coveting of Titania’s Indian boy outweighs his love for her. Later, Titania’s passion for the ass-headed Bottom represents an imbalance of appearance and nature: Titania is beautiful and graceful, while Bottom is clumsy and grotesque.
The fairies’ magic, which brings about many of the most bizarre and hilarious situations in the play, is another element central to the fantastic atmosphere of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Shakespeare uses magic both to embody the almost supernatural power of love (symbolized by the love potion) and to create a surreal world. Although the misuse of magic causes chaos, as when Puck mistakenly applies the love potion to Lysander’s eyelids, magic ultimately resolves the play’s tensions by restoring love to balance among the quartet of Athenian youths. Additionally, the ease with which Puck uses magic to his own ends, as when he reshapes Bottom’s head into that of an ass and recreates the voices of Lysander and Demetrius, stands in contrast to the laboriousness and gracelessness of the craftsmen’s attempt to stage their play.
As the title suggests, dreams are an important theme in A Midsummer Night’s Dream; they are linked to the bizarre, magical mishaps in the forest. Hippolyta’s first words in the play evidence the prevalence of dreams (“Four days will quickly steep themselves in night, / Four nights will quickly dream away the time”), and various characters mention dreams throughout (I.i.7–8). The theme of dreaming recurs predominantly when characters attempt to explain bizarre events in which these characters are involved: “I have had a dream, past the wit of man to say what / dream it was. Man is but an ass if he go about t’expound this dream,” Bottom says, unable to fathom the magical happenings that have affected him as anything but the result of slumber.
Shakespeare is also interested in the actual workings of dreams, in how events occur without explanation, time loses its normal sense of flow, and the impossible occurs as a matter of course; he seeks to recreate this environment in the play through the intervention of the fairies in the magical forest. At the end of the play, Puck extends the idea of dreams to the audience members themselves, saying that, if they have been offended by the play, they should remember it as nothing more than a dream. This sense of illusion and gauzy fragility is crucial to the atmosphere of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as it helps render the play a fantastical experience rather than a heavy drama.
The theme of jealousy operates in both the human and fairy realms in Midsummer Night’s Dream. Jealousy plays out most obviously among the quartet of Athenian lovers, who find themselves in an increasingly tangled knot of misaligned desire. Helena begins the play feeling jealous of Hermia, who has managed to snag not one but two suitors. Helena loves Demetrius, who in turn feels jealous of his rival for Hermia’s affections, Lysander. When misplaced fairy mischief leads Lysander into an amorous pursuit of Helena, the event drives Hermia into her own jealous rage. Jealousy also extends into the fairy realm, where it has caused a rift between the fairy king and queen. As we learn in Act II, King Oberon and Queen Titania both have eyes for their counterparts in the human realm, Theseus and Hippolyta. Titania accuses Oberon of stealing away with “the bouncing Amazon” (II.i.). Oberon accuses Titania of hypocrisy, since she also loves another: “How canst thou thus for shame, Titania, / Glance at my credit with Hippolyta, / Knowing I know thy love to Theseus?” (II.i.). This jealous rift incites Oberon to command Puck to fetch the magic flower that eventually causes so much chaos and confusion for the Athenian lovers.
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.
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.
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.
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.).