Essay Questions

Discuss the self-reflexive nature of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

What is the purpose of drawing the audience’s attention to the artificiality of the play? It shows that it is more than simply the imitation or reflection of reality. It is easy to think that only naïve performers like Peter Quince and his company could believe that the audience will mistake their acting for ‘real life’ and so panic and the entry of a bumpkin in a lion costume. But Theseus makes the same mistake when he says of actors,

"The best in this kind are but shadows" (V.1.208)

A shadow has no purpose in its own right, being merely the passive impression of the person or thing that has thrown it. A play of shadows can be nothing more than a rough impression of the things that happen in everyday life. So if Shakespeare’s goal in writing the play had been realism, surely he would not have included fairies, invisibility, magic juice, a man with the head of an ass and characters from ancient legends such as Theseus himself. Look at the juxtaposition of life and art in the play. Because A Midsummer Night’s Dream does not emphasize explicit discussions of this opposition it is easy to mistake it for lightweight entertainment. But in integrating such ideas into the action, so that we can see the similarities between theatre and other human experience, we become part of the theatrical process ourselves. It is a kind of shared dream, mixing common experience and fantasy, and Shakespeare creates a world that parallels those normally experienced by the audience. The lives of anyone prepared to join in are subsequently challenged, mocked and enriched.

Discuss the play’s exploration of male authority


Consider the position of women in the sixteenth century. They were treated as inferior to their male counterparts, and had no real power or independence. The play asserts masculinity as dominant from the start with Theseus boasting about how he conquered the female society of the Amazons. There are other examples of men asserting themselves over women. Oberon conquers Titania through trickery, and Lysander and Demetrius treat the women who love them in an appalling manner. These are events that the audience is meant to find amusing and this reinforces the misogynistic view of women prevalent in Elizabethan society. Admittedly Hermia and Helena do achieve the husbands they desire, but only because the authority of Oberon and Theseus, greater male authority figures, overrules the authority of Egeus. Once Hermia and Helena are married they no longer contribute any dialogue. As wives they are subservient to their husbands, male authority absorbing any independent role they may have had.

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