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A Midsummer Night’s Dream /

A Modern Perspective: A Midsummer Night’s Dream

By Catherine Belsey

When Bottom wakes up, near the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, after spending a night of love with the queen of the fairies, this formerly masterful and garrulous figure is suddenly very nearly inarticulate. What could he say that would do justice to the experience? “I have had a most rare vision. 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 to expound this dream” (4.1.214–17). Bottom’s name, and his transformation—an event that clarifies more than it changes his identity—invite the audience to associate him with the least poetic aspects of life, and yet, even as an ass, Bottom has been touched by something special but mysterious, a power that he finds unusually hard to define. In quest of a way of talking about what has happened to him, Bottom reaches for the language of the Bible, St. Paul’s account of the future glory that God has prepared for human beings (1 Corinthians 2.9), though of course, being Bottom, he gets it wrong: “The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report what my dream was” (4.1.220–24). In the end he concludes that the solution is for Peter Quince to write a ballad of his dream. Evidently only the lyricism of popular poetry seems to Bottom adequate to define the experience of love.

We do not have Peter Quince’s ballad, but—if we assume that Quince wrote “Pyramus and Thisbe,” in which Bottom plays the romantic hero—we do have his play, and we also have Shakespeare’s play, which is its setting. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a play about love. It proposes that love is a dream, or perhaps a vision; that it is absurd, irrational, a delusion, or, perhaps, on the other hand, a transfiguration; that it is doomed to be momentary (“So quick bright things come to confusion” [1.1.151]), and that it constitutes at the same time the proper foundation for lifelong marriage. Possibly Bottom is right, the play suggests, not to pin down anything so multiple, not to encapsulate love in a neat definition that would encourage us to measure our own and other people’s experience and find it normal or abnormal, mature or immature, wise or foolish. The play’s device, on the contrary, is to dramatize the plurality of love by characterizing it differently in a range of distinct voices.

As soon as Hermia and Lysander are left alone together on the stage for the first time, they discuss their predicament in a series of elegant and elaborate exchanges:


How now, my love? Why is your cheek so pale?

How chance the roses there do fade so fast?


Belike for want of rain, which I could well

Beteem them from the tempest of mine eyes.


Since the lovers and the audience have both heard Theseus tell Hermia that she must die or go into a convent if she refuses to marry another man, it is hardly necessary for Lysander to ask why she is pale, or for her to tell him that she thinks she might be going to cry. But the poetic image of the roses in her cheeks legitimates the conceit that follows: the roses are short of water, which Hermia is about to supply. The exchange has the effect of distancing the threat to Hermia, and putting before the audience instead what is delicate, lyrical, and witty in romance. Lysander’s next utterance explains the way all four lovers tend to talk to each other:

Ay me! For aught that I could ever read,

Could ever hear by tale or history . . .


How else, after all, do people learn to talk about love in the first instance, except by reading love stories? No wonder the four lovers are virtually indistinguishable. Romantic love is in this sense oddly impersonal. Because of love’s power to idealize, the object of desire seems unique, even though in the event it turns out that Hermia and Helena are interchangeable. But the ways of idealizing, of investing the other person with the special beauty or magnetism that justifies desire, are drawn in the first place from the culture in which people learn about love.

Meanwhile Theseus, we are to understand, in contrast to the young lovers, has been around. The stories of his many loves and betrayals would have been well known, at least to those members of the audience who had been to school, and Oberon alludes to them in the course of his quarrel with Titania (2.1.81–83). Theseus himself talks quite differently about love:

Now, fair Hippolyta, our nuptial hour

Draws on apace. Four happy days bring in

Another moon. But, O, methinks how slow

This old moon wanes! She lingers my desires

Like to a stepdame or a dowager

Long withering out a young man’s revenue.


Theseus acknowledges that he has desires, and they are urgent and imperative. He is impatient with the moon, that conventional poetic symbol of romance, and the comparison he invokes is anything but lyrical. The moon that is delaying his marriage is like an old woman who refuses to die and so prevents her young heir from getting his hands on his inheritance. Paradoxically, the love that is voiced by Theseus seems more insistent to the degree that it is more prosaic, literally more like prose, since the speech rhythms do not coincide with the line endings, but run directly across them. The Amazon Hippolyta, whose comments so often counterpoint those of Theseus, immediately supplies the missing romance by reinvesting with its customary lyricism “the moon, like to a silver bow / New-bent in heaven” (1.1.9–10).1

The young lovers perfectly reproduce the conventional idealizing imagery of the period:

O Helen, goddess, nymph, perfect, divine!

To what, my love, shall I compare thine eyne?

Crystal is muddy. O, how ripe in show

Thy lips, those kissing cherries, tempting grow!

That pure congealèd white, high Taurus’ snow,

Fanned with the eastern wind, turns to a crow

When thou hold’st up thy hand.


Eyes like crystals, lips like cherries, hands white as snow—this is engaging to the degree that it is lyrical. It is also delightfully absurd, when we bear in mind that it is the instant effect of Robin Goodfellow’s love-juice, and represents a vision of Helena that Demetrius was quite unable to see before his sight was bewitched. But as Helena herself explains earlier in the play, love does not necessarily see what is there:

Things base and vile, holding no quantity,

Love can transpose to form and dignity.

Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind;

And therefore is winged Cupid painted blind.


Helena’s words might equally constitute a commentary on Titania’s first response to Bottom braying in his ass’s head: “What angel wakes me from my flow’ry bed?” (3.1.131). The fairy queen’s temporary devotion to a donkey is the play’s clearest and funniest indication of love’s arbitrary nature.

One reason why the lovers seem comic is that their changes of preference do not appear arbitrary to them. As Lysander solemnly explains to his new love, Helena, “The will of man is by his reason swayed, / And reason says you are the worthier maid” (2.2.122–23). The element of absurdity is compounded when we recognize (though they do not) a parody of their idealizing vision in Thisbe’s lament for the dead Pyramus:

                These lily lips,

                This cherry nose,

             These yellow cowslip cheeks

                Are gone, are gone!

                Lovers, make moan;

             His eyes were green as leeks.


The king and queen of the fairies are old (or, rather, ageless) married lovers, and they are quarreling. The play does not ignore the trace of violence that exists within love when the other person fails to conform to the lover’s idealized image. The quarrel between Oberon and Titania has upset the proper sequence of the seasons, which is a serious problem in a society based on agriculture, though it is hard for the audience to feel great anxiety about this when the fairies quarrel so musically:

These are the forgeries of jealousy;

And never, since the middle summer’s spring,

Met we on hill, in dale, forest, or mead,

By pavèd fountain or by rushy brook,

Or in the beachèd margent of the sea,

To dance our ringlets to the whistling wind,

But with thy brawls thou hast disturbed our sport.


The brawls are not mentioned until the verse has quite distracted us from the substance of the quarrel through its evocation of imaginary landscapes, so lacking in specific detail that they seem the settings of half-remembered legends and tales of adventure. No wonder Oberon and Titania are finally reconciled. In a similar way, lyricism and comedy distance the passionate quarrels between Demetrius and Lysander, Hermia and Helena. Conversely, if the play of “Pyramus and Thisbe” evokes tears of laughter rather than sorrow (5.1.73–74), it alludes, nevertheless, to the tragic possibilities of a conflict between love and parental opposition. A Midsummer Night’s Dream does not let its audience forget that love entails confusion and danger as well as grace, although it never entirely separates these contraries.

None of the distinct voices in the play—romantic, lyrical, or urgent—seems to exhaust the character of love; none of them can be identified with “true” love as opposed to false. Nor does any of them summarize the nature of love; and when Theseus tries to do so, what he says seems quite inadequate. “I never may believe,” he insists, “These antique fables, nor these fairy toys” (5.1.2–3). “Antique” implies both “ancient” and “antic” (theatrical), and ironically Theseus himself is both. He is a fictional hero of classical legend and a figure on a stage in the most theatrical of plays. As for the fairy stories he repudiates, we have seen them enacted in the course of the play, and we are therefore in no position to share his entirely rational dismissal of lovers, along with lunatics and poets (5.1.7). Hippolyta seems more to the point when she answers him, but she is considerably less than specific. The separate stories of the night, she affirms, grow “to something of great constancy [consistency], / But, howsoever, strange and admirable [eliciting wonder]” (5.1.27–28). In talking about love, as perhaps in love itself, there is commonly a sense of a quality that cannot be made present, cannot be presented, or represented. In the most exhaustive analysis, the most effusive declaration, or the most lyrical poem, something slips away, and it is that elusiveness that sustains desire itself, as well as the desire to talk about it.

And this, perhaps, is a clue to the nature of the pleasure A Midsummer Night’s Dream offers its audience. It constructs for the spectators something of the desire it also puts on display. In one sense comedy produces the wishes it then goes on to fulfill. The play invites us to sympathize with the young lovers. In consequence, we want Hermia to marry the man she loves, in spite of the opposition of her ridiculous father, who supposes that serenades and love tokens are forms of witchcraft. And we want Helena to be happy with Demetrius in spite of his initial rejection of her love. The enigma that enlists the desire of the audience centers on whether the play will bring about the happy ending we hope for, and if so, how. The pleasure of this dramatic form is familiar from Roman comedy to Neil Simon, and its familiarity is precisely part of the enjoyment we are invited to experience.

But A Midsummer Night’s Dream does not always do exactly what we might expect, and in this way it keeps its audience guessing, continually reoffering itself in the process as an object of our desire. The play begins with the longing of Theseus and Hippolyta to consummate their love, and the action that follows occupies the intervening space, so that at the end of Act 5 the newly married lovers go off to bed together. Desire constitutes the frame of the play itself. In the meantime, Theseus dispatches the master of the revels, who is responsible for entertainment at court, in search of “merriments” and “reveling” (1.1.13, 20), and at once an old man comes in with his daughter and her two rival suitors. Egeus is appropriately stagy (“Stand forth, Demetrius . . . Stand forth, Lysander” [1.1.25, 27]), and the audience might be expected to recognize the pattern of Roman comedy, familiar from the plays of Plautus and Terence and widely imitated in Elizabethan drama. The conventional poetry and the extravagance of the lovers intensifies the sense that we are watching the first of the revels that Theseus has sent for, a play within a play.

But Roman comedy does not characteristically include fairies, and it is the mischief-making Robin Goodfellow, a supernatural figure from English folklore, who largely motivates the plot of this inset play. The genres are mixed, with the effect that the audience is never quite sure whether the conventions in operation at any specific moment are those of comedy or folktale. At the same time, Robin Goodfellow (Puck) both is and is not a native English replica of the blind, irrational, overhasty, and Continental Cupid that Helena describes. The play teases the audience with glimpses of familiar forms and figures, and then deflects our attention onto something unexpected. In consequence, the delight it invites the spectators to experience is entirely distinct from the comfortable feeling of recognition other plays rely on.

The plot leads up to the marriages of the lovers, but it does not quite confirm the distinction we might expect it to identify between true love on the one hand and arbitrary passion induced by magic on the other. Demetrius still has the love-juice on his eyes, and yet the play gives no indication of a difference between this marriage and the others. If marriage is a serious social institution, it seems to rest on a remarkably precarious base. But the imperatives of fiction require that the comedy of love end in marriage, and Demetrius marries the partner he has when the action comes to a stop.

If the story leads up to marriage, however, it does not quite end there. Many critical accounts of the play depend on an opposition between its two locations, the house of Theseus in Athens and the wildwood under the control of the fairies. The Athenian court represents the world of reconciliation and rationality, of social institutions and communal order, while the wood outside Athens is the location of night and bewildering passions, a place of anarchy and anxiety, where behavior becomes unpredictable and individual identity is transformed. On this reading, the fairies, who are by no means the sugary creatures of Victorian fantasy, represent the quintessence of all that is turbulent and uncontrolled in human experience, and in particular the traces of instability and violence that inhabit desire.

At the end of the play, however, when the couples, now properly distributed and legitimately married, have gone to bed, the fairies come in from the wood and take possession of the palace: “Through the house give glimmering light, / By the dead and drowsy fire . . .” (5.1.408–9). Though their purpose, we are to understand, is benevolent, they also bring with them the uncanny resonances of the dreamworld that seemed to have been left behind in the wood:

          . . . we fairies, that do run

              By the triple Hecate’s team

          From the presence of the sun,

              Following darkness like a dream,

          Now are frolic.


Hecate is the queen of the night, and the team the fairies run with are the dragons who draw her chariot. Their unexpected presence within the house, therefore, implies the invasion of elements of the turbulent, the magical, and the unearthly into the social and domestic proprieties of marriage.

How could it be otherwise? This is, after all, a wedding night. But by handing over the conclusion to the fairies, the play displaces the apparent closure, the celebration of restored identity and the return to community it has duly delivered. Instead, it goes on to re-create what is most mysterious and elusive in the world it has portrayed, and gives the stage back to the representatives of all that is unaccountable and still unrecounted in the experience of love. In this way A Midsummer Night’s Dream offers to leave its audience in a state of mind that bears some resemblance to Bottom’s when he wakes up from his dream: exalted, perhaps, but a little less assured, less confident, and altogether less knowing than before.

  1. It is possible, of course, that the new-bent bow is not merely lyrical. As an Amazon, Hippolyta would have carried a bow as a weapon against Theseus and his army. See James Calderwood’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Anamorphism and Theseus’ Dream,” Shakespeare Quarterly 42 (1991): 409–30, esp. p. 413, for a discussion of Elizabethan attitudes toward Amazons.