In a midsummer’s night’s dream, Shakespeare plays with appearances and actuality using illusions to show us the very thin divide that lies between the two. Shakespeare cleverly uses the concepts of dreams, magic and the fanciful addition of a play within a play to illustrate his point. The very setting of the play serves to create the first contrast; the main course of the play takes place in a forest that is home to fairies, raising questions as to the authenticity of the scene. From the beginning to the end the characters seem to be in a daze, constantly being deceived and unable to discriminate between the truth and the fabricated. There are different groups of people in this play all interacting with each other in different ways and maintaining these interactions through their own perspectives.
A clear example of the contrast between reality and appearances can be seen in the incident that took place between Titania and Bottom. Enamored, under the influence of the magic of the flower she falls madly in love with Bottom, despite the fact that his head has been turned into an ass’s head by Puck. Although she is under a spell we cannot say with complete assurance that Her love for him is not true. Perhaps she feels an honest passion for Puck, however, these emotions have surfaced from the wrong wells. Her perception is distorted; her reality is not similar to Bottoms. They are both experiencing different emotions while being in the same situation. This is why when the spell is lifted off Titania she is horrified by the memory of all that she experienced with Bottom. While for him it is a beauteous memory that almost seems like “a dream past the wit of man to say what dream it was.” (IV.i.199–209).
Characters seem to move about in a dream-like state, falling asleep and waking up, after having dreamed, or after having magic worked on them, as Hermia exclaims upon arousing “What a dream was here”. (II.ii.120). the characters under influence of the magic from the flower wander into strange environs where they seem to lose all perspective of their own selves, as can be seen in the fact that Hermia and Helana and later Lysander and Demetrius were willing to fight each other. The love that the characters felt for each other seems to dissolve and morph under the influence of illusions as the play carries on.
The contrast between appearances and reality is also explored through the play in a play concept. The crude mechanicals is at a loss to understand how to depict the moonlight or the wall separating the two characters of their play, Pyramus and Thisbe. They fail to understand that the greatest allure of the theatre is that it allows the audience to exercise their imaginations and create the picture that is the setting of the play, according to their own perceptions. The poor men go to great pains to create a satisfying illusion for their audience, the newlyweds, introducing themselves as they appear onto the stage, “one Snout by name, present a wall”. (V.i.200). Snug, who is playing the Lion, goes so far as to assure the audience that he is not really a lion and that they must not fear him. Theseus takes great pleasure in these puerile declarations, as do we when we read this play, however, we must not miss the underlying message in such dialogues. Shakespeare at this point creates wondrous magic, whereby he makes us see the same person in various ways, as a craftsman, a lion, an actor, and a simple character in a play.
In fact, Shakespeare chooses to end the play on much the same lines. Puck ends the play most gloriously while raising the most complex question on the divide between reality and illusion. “If we shadows have offended…No more yielding than a dream…” (V.ii.391-196). He begins by calling the actors shadows, thereby reducing all that the audience would have seen to nothing more than simple images created by their own mind. He even gives us leave to dismiss them as if they really were as such. Puck ending monologue raises the question of the reality of our own existence.
As always Shakespeare leaves us pondering. He assures that there is very little dividing reality from appearances and that the division can often get lost, blurring the lines and creating a distorted view of the world that is neither true nor false.
Shakespeare, William. A Midsummer Night’s Dream”
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