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With the title of A Midsummer Night's Dream, the suggestiveness of the importance of dreams and dreaming in the play could not be more conspicuous. However, the concept of dreams and dreaming is so cleverly used in the play that it is not as plain and simple as it seems. This essay will attempt to engage with this issue and investigate how the notion could be interpreted from different perspectives.
In Robert Crosman's essay "What is the Dream in A Midsummer Night's Dream?", he suggested that Shakespeare "depicts a world where people mistakenly regard their strange experience as "dreams" and are thus unaware of the real, unseen forces that shape their lives" (Crosman 3). Closely related to this theory is Kheler's theory of "poetry imagination", saying that Shakespeare exercised his control as a writer to achieve catharsis by depicting "the current disrepute", an expression of "truth to reality", "a higher truth" (101). The embodiment of dreams and dreaming is most noticeably in Puck's speech at the end of the play. If the audience is "offended" by dark and disturbing elements in the play, Puck urges them to think of them as nothing but "a dream" and to imagine that they "have but slumber'd here" (A Midsummer Night's Dream V: i). The concept of metatheatricality is highlighted as Puck attempts to reassure the audience despite the events in the woods and the play-within-play. Puck's repeated emphasis of making amends (A Midsummer Night's Dream V: i), thus, calls the audience's attention to the relationship between dreams and creative control. Through the act of blending the author's implications into the world of metatheatricality, A Midsummer Night' Dream provides an opportunity to experience the mind of the unconsciousness and various emotions exhibited by the characters.
Based on the above observation, the dark elements and emotions included in the play could be what the audience experience in everyday life yet do not or could not be confronted. Mangan shared a similar perspective, pointing out the similarity of Freud's psychoanalysis theory and Shakespeare's incorporation of the idea of dreams and dreaming into the play (157). He suggested Shakespeare "intuitively share this belief in the meaningfulness of dreams", and that Shakespeare had built his play on the common Elizabethan belief that "dreams can be seen as a kind of truth" (157). Oberon's jealousy, his power struggle with Titania, the conflicting interest among the four lovers and even Hippolyta's marriage to Theseus could all be aspects of human unconsciousness which serve as a "interpretative frame" (Magnan 158) for the understanding of human needs and desires. How the audience interpret and react to the subliminal messages depends on how they "transform[ing] the latent dream" (Holland 2). Indeed, the way that Shakespeare manipulated the concept of dreams is closely allied to the Freudian psychoanalytical approach of abreaction.
Despite the efforts of controlling the characters, settings, plots and the audience's experiences, Puck's soliloquy offers an alternative for the audience to reject the messages indicated in the play. As much as Shakespeare attempted to control the characters and the audience, he was only successful in the latter only if the audience is willing to embrace the embodiments in expense of a superficial but delightful interpretation. As Brooks stressed "We can only think of the woodland drama as a dream, but only, in fairness, by embracing Puck's invitationâ€¦" (cxlii). In a sense, the closing speech hands over the control to the audience - to decide whether they want to treat the dream as a resolution, or as an artistic creation that could relate to their personal experience in reality. There is, therefore, a close affinity between Shakespeare's purpose and the setting for (most of) the play. The setting of the night period of the day and the woods represents uncertainty, insecurity, secrecy and mystery. With reference to other imageries related to the nature, "the setting [â€¦ ] is widened beyond the wood, and becomes of the world of nature itselfâ€¦ to take in hostile features." (Brooks cxxvi). In correlation to the world of nature are the fairies. The world of fairies is extended too, by fairies such as Oberon and Titania whose empire "stretches to the farthest step of India" (A Midsummer Night's Dream II: i) and Puck's ability to play various pranks and travel around the world in fourty minutes ((A Midsummer Night's Dream II: i) (Brooks cxxvii). Hence, it is the setting and the characters that allows Shakespeare to, through the mouths of the characters, frequently refer the events in the forest as a dream - whether as a literal reference or a metaphor. The woodland is more than just a location - it serves as the resolution of the emotional disturbances for the audience who need it so.
It is because of "Shakespeare's unwillingness to choose between two mutually exclusive views" that Shakespeare has to demonstrate a different perspective "by means of metatheatre" (Crosman 4). With the play-within-play as the last act, an alternative ending to the lovers' entanglements is acted by the mechanicals. Considering the relationships and marriage is granted to the four lovers by Theseus in the first scene of Act Four, the play-within-play is given a great deal of significance since it is the main focus of Act Five. The play does not only share characters with a similar background, but also, significantly, share the same setting of countryside and day of time which is an important element of creating a dream-like world. Shakespeare even went as far as introducing the imagery of moon - which is a recurring imagery throughout the play- in the play-within-play, giving Moonshine a speech. As the audience it is almost impossible to overlook the true function of such an arrangement. True, the play-within-play is presented comically, but A Midsummer Night's Dream as a whole "juggles conspicuously with multiple levels of representation, with play-within-plays and visions within dreams" (Nevo 110). With the interchanging of reality and fantasy, the fantasying aspects could facilitate as an excuse of a "weak and idle theme". (A Midsummer Night's Dream V: i)
A further aspect of dreaming that is to be discussed is the colonial dream that is represented metaphorically in the play. According to Hendricks, the representation of ethnicity and "oriental fantasy" is "unmistakably racist" due to the Indian changeling boy (38). This is evident when Oberon and Titania fight over the ownership of the Indian changeling, the idea of possession and control is particularly strong as the couple would risk their relationship for a mortal boy, and also with the fact that Oberon's immense jealousy over the matter:
The king doth keep his revels here tonight.
Take heed the queen come not within his sight.
For Oberon is passing fell and wrath
Because that she, as her attendant hath
A lovely boy stolen from an Indian king.
She never had so sweet a changeling.
And jealous Oberon would have the child
Knight of his train, to trace the forests wild: (A Midsummer Night's Dream II: i)
While Titania may claim her relationship with the changeling's mortal mother as a reason (A Midsummer Night's Dream II: i), Hendricks pointed out that the Indian boy is simply a plot device on the textual level and that as the source of conflict, so the boy does not have to be an Indian to serve the same function (41). Yet, as Hendricks observed, despite the fact that he has no lines and functions mainly as a stage prop (37), his marternal ethnic origins is explained in an elaborate manner (41), describing his mother as "[â€¦] a votaress of my order/And in the spicèd Indian air by night/Full often hath she gossiped by my side[â€¦]" (A Midsummer Night's Dream II: i). If the identity of the boy is given with an intentional purpose, this character is then an emblem of the oppressed races and a metaphor of the aggression possessed by the Elizabethans. However, such a depiction is excused due to the dream-like nature of the play. What seems like a deliberate and racist treatment is obscured by the dreamlike state the play deliberately enforces (Hendricks 38). Additionally, Oberon's desire for the possession of the Indian boy "is linked to Oberon's political authority" and "very much connected to desire for domination over Titania" (Hendricks 53). Oberon's control of the Indian boy would not only signifies his superior power in the fairy world, but also his control over Titania.
Hendrick's argument over the representation is valid with sufficient evidence and convincing interpretation, yet the role of the Indian changeling is nevertheless minuscule. To say that the predominant usage of the idea of dreams is to conceal the racial stereotypes is hyperbole. The issue of gender as well as power rivalry between different sexes, however, seem to play a much bigger role and thus deserve a deeper discussion. True, the fairy couple's sources of conflict comes from the dominance of the Indian boy; yet what ultimately triggers such sense of aggression is the power struggle in their own realms, which is evident from the beginning of the second act through the Act Four Scene One. Though Hendricks had mentioned this, she had but only briefly. The motif of male dominance runs through the play. Titania loses the power struggle once she is infected with Oberon's love juice in the woods, and throughout the dream-like events of that night the audience witness how Queen Titania loses complete control of her mind and body and eventually succumbs to patriarchal dominance. How she has transformed from a woman who has 'forsworn [her husband's] bed and company' (A Midsummer Night's Dream II: i) to a tamed wife 'new in amity' (A Midsummer Night's Dream IV: i). Interestingly, Titania's position appears to share similarities with Hyppolyta, whom we know has a certain level of military and political power from the Amazons (A Midsummer Night's Dream II: i) and is only married to Theseus after being defeated (A Midsummer Night's Dream I: i). It is a further example of the scope of discussions that dreams and dreaming could widen in this "highly intellectual, highly speculative comedy" (Nevo 57).
In conclusion, this essay has attempted an investigation into Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream regarding the notion of the representation and prominence of dreams and dreaming. This essay has hypothesised that whilst the role of dreams and dreaming in A Midsummer Night's Dream is manifest, the interpretation of how, why and what Shakespeare manipulated dreams could be multifaceted. As previously discussed, dreams are the process of abreaction that allows the audience to confront disturbing, inner issue. At the same time, the dream-like state helps blur the harsh reality of events and serves as an escape route for individuals who could not cope with the problematic issues in a conscious state. Dreams are 'a repetitive mode [that] invests the whole play, almost to an extent that seems to insist on repetition as one of its central concerns' (Hawkes 16) and Shakespeare has evidently exercise his cathartic opportunity to reveal themes such as race, colonial ideology and battle of the sexes (Nevo 104) through the use of an effective setting. Notwithstanding, though dreams and dreaming complicates the comedy by opening up new areas of discussion, it is interesting to understand how Shakespeare and his counterparts perceived the dubious and vague nature of dreams, its relation to subconsciousness and the role of dreaming in the theatre when the notion was still yet to be widely developed in their era. It is, perhaps, why A Midsummer Night's Dream still appeals to the modern audience whom might have difficulty relating to fairies and spirits because of the cultivating quality of the human brain.