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William Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is perhaps the most purely romantic of Shakespeare’s comedies. It is a comedy about love which is unrestrained by the norms of society. The play is littered with examples of how the journey to find love is marred by various transformations, Transformation of the relationship and even of the person himself. Yet great though Shakespeare was he too was a writer who was influenced by a predecessor. In the case of A Midsummer night’s dream, Shakespeare’s influence draws from Ovid’s famous “Metamorphoses” to be exact the story of “Pyramus and Thisbe”. However unlike the inspiration Shakespeare treats this tragedy as a comedy.
Yet Shakespeare has distinguished himself in the way he the themes of Ovid’s metamorphosis throughout the play. He uses a mix of myth, tradition and magic to make clear to the viewer how the human condition can transform into something completely new. The link between love and imagination are key aspects of the theme of transformation. Shakespeare’s genius comes through is how in the world of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, men and not the gods are the central characters. He encourages the reader to use the gods as metaphors to understand love. In short he translates Ovid into his understanding of what is the meaning of the play and how it relates to life in his time.
The idea of using opposites to reflect metamorphosis is the basic building block of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The entire play is developed around the idea of opposites. Almost all the characters in the play have their counterparts: ex. Puck and Bottom; where puck is one who plays pranks and bottom one who is the target. There is a contrast between the beauty of Titania and the ugliness of Bottom. Opposition makes possible the metamorphosis which Ovid inspired in Shakespeare.
The image of the beautiful Titania weaving flowers into the hair of the ass-headed Bottom is a perfect example of how opposites come together on screen to reflect metamorphosis. To the viewer it seems impossible to imagine two figures less compatible with each other yet Shakespeare molds this into something the viewers can laugh about, Thereby morphing confusion into comedy. This coming together of the two in the same scene is the most important characteristic of the play and is thus perhaps the play’s central theme.
An interesting aspect of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is its structure. Shakespeare gives us a play within a play . The story of Pyramus and Thisbe serves as a façade for a greater theme: the nature of real life against life portrayed in the theater. The performance is a major metamorphosis to give the audience a sense of reality as compared to the dream like atmosphere of the play. The thought that even though true love is never easy and falling in love can lead to disaster and heartbreak is something that Shakespeare bring out. He shows us that this transformation is critical to the human condition. Yet Shakespeare recasts this situation of seeming tragedy into one of comedy.
Shakespeare’s translation of Ovid is achieved by using ancient stories and recasting them into something modern audiences will relate with. As an example we can point out that Puck is a new age Cupid. A central character of the play is inspired by a god who uses arrows to make people fall in love. This transformation by Shakespeare is what sets the tone of the play. With the characters themselves being transformations of previous mythological figures the idea of a play within a play is further strengthened.
But perhaps the most profound example of metamorphosis in the play is when Bottom is transformed by Puck in an ass. It is perhaps one of the most powerful examples of metamorphosis in the play in which, Bottom is given an ass’s head. What follows is perhaps even more fascinating: Titania seducing Bottom . Here she is falls prey to raw desires. This is where Shakespeare brings in the theme of a god falling in love with a mortal. Infect the god succumbs to the violent human hunger for sex. This combination of classical elements and real life themes marks the play as an interpretation of the highest order.
In the midst of this entire play Bottom is a kind of sacrificial lamb, a martyr. As an ass, Bottom has come to represent innocence and stupidity. Bottom is not phased by the metamorphosis even when his features are changed. He is supremely confident in his own abilities even though he comes across as absolutely ridiculous.
In all a Midsummer Night’s Dream tells a story of change, transformation and of course of metamorphosis. Life after all is full of good and bad changes. It is the natural condition the change oneself into something better. Yet the process itself can be dangerous and full of irregularities. Like bottom we may too sometimes have an ass’s head but we must realize that society can only constrain us so much. I believe that the ass’s head is a strike against all society just because it is so far away from anything we can imagine that it forces to comprehend the un-imaginable. And this is where Shakespeare and Ovid succeed. Why even at the end of the play when all the actors save Puck have left the stage, Shakespeare plays a last tribute to his inspiration and reminds us that the power of our imagination is in our dream but there is nothing stopping us from living our dream.
“If we shadows have offended, think but this, and all is mended.
That you have but slumb’red here, While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme, No more yielding but a dream”
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