A Midsummer Night's Dream | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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A Midsummer Night's Dream | Motifs

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Day and Night

To support the theme of order versus disorder and draw attention to the dreamlike nature of the woods, Shakespeare sets some scenes in the day and some at night. Act 1 takes place in the daytime, and events are far from dreamlike: Egeus invokes Athenian law, lovers plan their escape, and tradesmen attempt to plan a play for which they are unqualified. Acts 2 and 3, which take place at night, are dominated by fairies playing pranks, magical love spells, and a quarrel between the king and queen of the fairies. This is the night in which the "dream" of the title takes place. In Act 4 the lovers exit the woods and go back to "reality," though one enchantment remains in place. In Act 5, Scene 2 the play shifts again to nighttime as the fairies come to bless the three marriages. The dream world of chaos, fairies, and magic is associated with the disorderly night, and the orderly part of the play—the ceremonies and laws—is associated with the day.

Play-within-a-Play

The mechanicals' play is about two lovers, Pyramus and Thisbe, whose families will not allow them to be with each other. Living next to each other, they whisper of their love through a crack in the wall. They make a plan to meet secretly, but when Thisbe gets there, she is frightened by a bloody-jawed lion and, dropping her cloak, runs away. The lion chews the cloak, leaving it bloody, so that when Pyramus arrives, he believes the lion has killed and eaten his lover. He kills himself in sorrow. This play-within-a-play includes a main event that is similar to one in the larger play: two lovers are forbidden from marrying by family. However, the play-within-a-play has a tragic ending while the larger play has a happy one. This contrast highlights the effect of the fairies' magic to turn tragedy to a "dream" of romance and comedy.

Additionally, the play-within-a-play calls attention to the theatricality of the antics that ensue in the fairy woods. Just as the nobles watch with amusement as the mechanicals act their parts poorly in a play, so Puck watches in amusement as the four lovers make fools of themselves in the woods.

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