A Midsummer Night's Dream | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe explains the symbols in William Shakespeare's play A Midsummer Night's Dream.

A Midsummer Night's Dream | Symbols


The Woods

The woods is a powerful symbol of untamed nature, and in this play, nature is specifically tied to the fairy realm. Titania and Oberon's extended argument is said to cause ongoing unrest in nature, including unseasonable weather. So the woods represents both untamed nature and untamed magic, which are intertwined. The fairies are seen to be closer to disorder than to order. Their pranks are disruptive to human activities, and they do not seem governed by laws as Theseus is. The disruptive fairy magic represented by the woods is then the perfect setting for the "dream" part of the "midsummer night's dream." In the woods, dreamlike events can take place—events that do not obey the rules of nature or Athenian civilization.


As part of nature, flowers are necessarily associated with fairies and with magic. However, certain flowers have a special role in this play. One is the flower that Oberon tells Puck he witnessed Cupid's arrow striking. This flower contains a magical juice that when placed on a person's eyelids causes that person to instantly fall in love with whatever living creature he or she sees upon waking. The other flower is used to reverse the magical enchantment of the first flower. In the play these enchantments create confusion but ultimately work together to make a happy ending out of tragic circumstances. Therefore, the flowers symbolize not only nature and fairy magic, but also the wild yet ultimately benevolent nature of the fairy magic.


The moon exerts a powerful force on many of the characters, affecting how they act. It is associated with the love and dreaming the characters encounter. The action of the play occurs at night, when the moon presides. The moon mainly affects the humans and not the fairies. In Act 2, Scene 1 one of the fairies takes great pleasure in being a night fairy, saying that it is "swifter than the moon's sphere," which means that this fairy is much too quick to be caught in the net of the moon's spell. The moon shows the passage of time. When the play opens, as Theseus and Hippolyta are discussing their approaching marriage (Act 1, Scene 1), Theseus remarks how the "old moon" makes time progress slowly. The moon is also a witness to their marriage ceremony and their union on the wedding night.

The moon represents chastity, too. In Act 1, Scene 1 Theseus tells Hermia that it would be difficult "To live a barren sister all [her] life / Chanting faint hymns to the cold fruitless moon." This reference to nuns evokes purity, and the words barren and fruitless also denote chastity.

At the same time, the moon represents lust. This idea appears in Act 1, Scene 1 when Egeus says that Lysander "hast by moonlight at her window sung / With feigning voice verses of feigning love," showing how Lysander serenaded his love by the moonlight, which is an act of lust.

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