Although ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ was set in Athenian times, the fact that it was written in Elizabethan times is obvious. Shakespeare has introduced this element of the then modern society in order to not alienate the audience, who obviously had not been to Athens around 200 BC. Theatre played a much more prominent role in the lives of the average person in Shakespeare’s time than it does now, and therefore a much wider stratum of society would regularly go to the theatre. In the present time, the cinema seems to have replaced it. For this reason, it was important for a comedy, such as ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, to have a wide appeal.
Shakespeare’s comedies were often based on conflict, and in this instance, the conflict was between the worlds of Athens and the fairies. The confusion in love, and the conflict resolved at the end, also shows it is a comedy. There was a hierarchy in all Shakespeare’s plays; in this case, there was the orderly world of Athens, the confused, magical world of the fairies, and the uncultured buffoonery of the ‘rude mechanicals’.
Shakespeare accentuates this by setting scenes in the Athenian world in the day time, and in the wood by night. The light of day symbolizes the clarity of Athens, while the darkness mimics the confusion in the land of the fairies.
Conflict is introduced early on in the play, with the disagreements between Egeus and his daughter Hermia. It prepares the audience for the conflict between the worlds, running though the play.
Shakespeare also introduces moon imagery very early on in the play, on the entrance of Theseus and Hippolyta:
‘And then the moon – like to a silver bow
New bent in heaven – shall behold the night
Of our solemnities’.
The moon in Greek mythology is the goddess Artemis, who was a symbol of virginity. This moon imagery, combined with the wedding plans of Theseus and Hippolyta, prepares us for the entrance of Hermia, to whom virginity is so important. It also reminds the audience of the strict nature of Athenian society, where young women were expected to be kept pure until they married. The moon imagery continues throughout the play, perhaps to emphasize the influence that the fairy (dark) world has on Athens.
When the young people of Athens escape into the woods, it is then very surprising to the audience that Helena is so immodest about her virginity. Demetrius is shocked by this, and tells Helena
‘You do impeach your modesty too much…
To trust the opportunity of night…
With the rich worth of your virginity’
It is obvious that the four lovers see this time in the land of the fairies to finally throw off all the restrictions of life in Athens, and for Lysander and Hermia, to leave it behind for ever. As Hermia says: ‘Seemed Athens as a paradise to me.
Oh then, what graces in my love do dwell
That he hath turned my heaven unto a hell?’
The leaders of both the worlds also contrast. Theseus is seen as a noble and fair leader, as he allows Hermia to ‘Take time to pause’, when she is deciding whether to marry Demetrius or die. He treats his servants with disrespect, however, as he tells Philostrate that ‘That pale companion is not for our pomp’. Oberon, treats his servant Puck as a friend, even addresses him as ‘Gentle Puck’. Although Oberon treats Puck with love and fairness, he does have a playful meddling streak. This is exposed when he decides to interfere with the lives of the Athenian lovers. Theseus is always seen as a much more solemn ruler than Oberon. In the play, Oberon represents reason, and Oberon passion. They govern each of their worlds accordingly.
The differences between the worlds, and the people within them, are partially illustrated by Shakespeare’s use of their language. The fairies speak in highly elaborate, evocative rhyming couplets: ‘I know a bank where the wild thyme blows / where oxlips and the nodding violet grow.’ This language is in harmony with the beauty that the fairy world is portrayed as.
This contrasts with the world of Athens, which in comparison seems quite stale and boring. Here, Theseus, Hippolyta and the rest of the Athenian courtiers speak in blank verse. It is spoken in a grand style, and the language sounds more mature and less playful than that of the four Athenian lovers. ‘Now, fair Hippolyta, our nuptial hour draws on apace.’ This maturity also contrasts with the confusion and passion within the relationships of the four lovers. Theseus and Hippolyta are the picture of reason within the world of confusion, whose love remains constant throughout the play.
The young Athenians, the lovers, speak in a grand rhetorical style. It emphasizes their playfulness and youth, and also their noble standing in Athens. ‘And here am I, and wood within this wood.’
Because in Shakespeare’s time, there were no sets to the plays, the language had to be evocative enough for the audience to be able to imagine the setting. This is why such emphasis is placed on the variations of the characters language.
In essence, the world of the fairies compared to the Athenian world can be seen as passion versus reason. Although the fairy world is seen as a beautiful and mystical place, the fight between Oberon and Titania has left the world in disarray. However, Theseus and Hippolyta are the only couple who are happy all through the play. They are the one picture of stability in the mass of confusion that is the fairy world. The disorder in the relationships of the four young lovers, Lysander, Helena, Hermia and Demetrius, is Shakespeare’s method of showing the audience what happens when the two worlds collide.