A Midsummer Night's Dream | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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A Midsummer Night's Dream | Act 5, Scene 1 | Summary

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Summary

Back at Theseus's palace, newlyweds Theseus and Hippolyta discuss the events reported by the four lovers. Theseus thinks these events were simply imaginings. Hippolyta, however, points out that the stories of the four have "constancy," or fit together well, so there might be something true in them.

The four lovers—now two newlywed couples—enter with Philostrate, who is in charge of organizing entertainment for the nobles between the wedding and bedtime. Philostrate has made a list of possibilities, which Theseus peruses. He is intrigued by the "tedious brief scene" and "tragical mirth" of the play with Pyramus and Thisbe and decides to see it. Philostrate cautions him that the play is not good, but Theseus likes the idea of a play performed by everyday men.

The mechanicals enter and perform their play, which is so awful that it is hilarious. The nobles interject their sarcastic comments throughout but are entertained and applaud when it is done. As the play ends, the bell strikes midnight. The three couples leave for bed.

After the humans disperse, the fairies return. Puck, armed with a broom, sweeps the floor. Then Oberon and Titania, along with their fairy servants, enter to bless the house. Titania leads the fairies in a song and dance: "Hand in hand, with fairy grace, / Will we sing and bless this place." Oberon instructs the fairies to go throughout the house and bless each chamber with "sweet peace." After the rest of the fairies leave, Puck tells the audience that if they did not like the play, they can think of it as just a dream. Then he asks the audience to consider him a friend and to applaud.

Analysis

Now that the humans have exited the fairy world, they enter once again the Athenian world of law and order. Theseus, as a representative of order, finds the lovers' stories unbelievable. Hippolyta is more willing to believe them; perhaps she is curious about the sudden change that has come over Demetrius, who emerges from the fairy woods still under the spell, madly in love with Helena.

Though the happy endings make it seem as if the humans have returned to normalcy after emerging from the magical fairy realm and reentering the human world, they have not. While the enchantments on Bottom and Lysander are lifted, Demetrius's remains. He is forever changed in a way that benefits the social order. The fairy magic may have upset reality, but in the end, it averts a tragedy that simple law and order would have caused. Remarkably similar to Romeo and Juliet, the tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe, even poorly performed, acts as a reminder of what might have happened to Hermia and Lysander had the fairies not intervened. The happy ending and the blessing of the fairies that closes the play are evidence that the fairy magic, while mischievous, can bring about good. Its benevolence stands against the cold cruelty of the Athenian law.

Since this scene focuses on the play-within-a-play as staged by the enthusiastic yet untalented mechanicals, it allows Shakespeare to comment on the nature of theater. The mechanicals' play runs parallel to the "dream" playing out in the woods. Both are theater, of sorts. The mechanicals have been very concerned that Theseus and the others will not understand the difference between fiction and reality. However, it is obviously easy for the audience to distinguish reality and fiction when watching the play-within-a-play. The place for distinguishing between reality and dreams is the fairy realm. Where the mechanicals fail, making the gap between reality and fiction into a wider chasm, the fairies are wildly successful, blurring the line between waking and dreaming, between reality and fiction. They succeed so well that some of the magic stays with those who entered the dream. Perhaps Shakespeare is suggesting that the very best theater has a sort of magical ability to cross lines between fiction and reality. It can change a person permanently.

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