A Midsummer Night's Dream

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Themes and Colors
Love Theme Icon
Plays Within Plays Theme Icon
Dreams Theme Icon
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LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in A Midsummer Night's Dream, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Dreams Theme Icon

After their surreal night of magic and mayhem in the forest, both the lovers and Bottom describe what happened to them as a "dream." They use the word "dream" to describe their experiences, because they wouldn't otherwise be able to understand the bizarre and irrational things that they remember happening to them in the forest. By calling their experiences dreams, Bottom and the lovers allow those experiences to exist as they are, without need for explanation or understanding. As Bottom says: "I have had a dream, past the wit of man to say what / dream it was. Man is but an ass if he go about t'expound this dream"(IV.i.200-201). In a famous speech near the end of the play, Duke Theseus brushes off the lovers' tale of their night in the forest, and goes so far as to condemn the imagination of all lovers, madmen, and poets as full of illusion and untruths. But Theseus's argument overlooks that it is reason, as set down in the law of Athens, that caused all the problems to begin with. And it was the "dream" within the forest that solved those problems. Through this contrast, the play seems to be suggesting that dreams and imagination are as useful as reason, and can sometimes create truths that transcend reason's limits.

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Dreams Quotes in A Midsummer Night's Dream

Below you will find the important quotes in A Midsummer Night's Dream related to the theme of Dreams.
Act 4, scene 1 Quotes
May all to Athens back again repair
And think no more of this night's accidents
But as the fierce vexation of a dream. (50)
Related Characters: Oberon (speaker), Hermia, Helena, Lysander, Demetrius
Page Number: 4.1.68-70
Explanation and Analysis:

Oberon at last feels pity for the way he has treated Titania and the other characters. He informs Puck to finish undoing his mischief and to allow the characters to depart the forest.

These lines verify the sharp division between the play’s urban and forest settings. Whereas the forest is seen as the place of fantasy and magic, the city promises a return to normalcy. Oberon’s use of the word “repair” stresses how the character's return to Athens will restore order to the broken relations and return to normal any behaviors made strange by the forest. His strict delineation between the two spaces casts the events that have transpired in the forest as whimsical and temporary—and to have little relevance to the rest of the characters’ lives.

Oberon also addresses the importance of dreams in this play. Hoping the other characters will think of the events in the forest as only “the fierce vexation of a dream” means that they will consider them to have been a psychologically real experience but one that has no pragmatic effect on their lives. He thus aligns the forest environment with nighttime and dreams, whereas Athens is associated with daytime and “reality.” These associations further emphasize that the romantic complications that have taken place in the forest are to be taken as illusory, for they should be seen as temporary and unreal.

And yet, as becomes clear just a few lines later, the wild, magical, "unreal" events of the forest have actually untangled the romantic mess of the four lovers in a way that the law of Theseus and Athens never could. 

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I know you two are rival enemies:
How comes this gentle concord in the world,
That hatred is so far from jealousy,
To sleep by hate, and fear no enmity? (129)
Related Characters: Theseus (speaker), Lysander, Demetrius
Page Number: 4.1.148-151
Explanation and Analysis:

Theseus has stumbled upon Lysander and Demetrius sleeping by each other. He wonders how their proximity is possible considering how they had previously battled for Hermia’s favor.

These lines return to the question of shifting identities, for Lysander and Demetrius’ current behaviors are highly surprising in light of their previous ones. Theseus begins with the firm affirmation “I know” and then wonders how their deviation—“gentle concord”—from his knowledge of their rivalry would be possible. He wonders how the “jealousy” that they feel of each other would not inspire “hatred,” for presumably if they did indeed hate each other they would fear “enmity” or some kind of negative retribution. His incredulous response shows that Theseus expects the two to have consistent identities and behaviors—and that he is surprised when Oberon’s exploits have pacified them.

Importantly, this conclusion requires an external viewer—Theseus—to make sense of the way these two men have changed. Others within the forest are similarly bewitched actors in Oberon’s play and thus unable to rationally recognize how quickly they have shifted allegiances. But Theseus is able to stand apart from the action and thus offer this insight. Shakespeare thus makes him an analog for the audience—one who questions character development like any good interpreter.

And yet, at the same time, Theseus's confusion at the change in Lysander and Demetrius's characters again emphasizes how a viewpoint based entirely around "law" and "reason" is insufficient to comprehend or affect a world full of the irrational human feeling of love. 

I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream past the wit of man to say what dream it was. Man is but an ass if he go about t'expound this dream. Methought I was—there is no man can tell what. Methought I was, and methought I had—but man is but a patched fool if he will offer to say what methought I had. The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man's hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report what my dream was. I will get Peter Quince to write a ballad of this dream. It shall be called 'Bottom's Dream', because it hath no bottom. (Bottom)
Related Characters: Nick Bottom (speaker), Peter Quince
Page Number: 4.1.215-226
Explanation and Analysis:

After the other characters have left, Bottom finally wakes. He can recall the events of the previous night, but considers them to be a dream.

Although Bottom tries to explain the content of his dream, the majority of his description actually points out how inarticulable he finds his experience. That it is “past the wit of man” implies that it cannot be understood by human intelligence, and indeed he contends that a man would have to be “but an ass” and “but a patched fool” (both of which Bottom actually was during the night) if he believed he could describe the dream. The repetition of “methought” similarly undermines the certainty of what has transpired: Bottom presents each sentence as potential rather than certain. He then explores the limits of the human senses, contending that sight, sound, touch, taste, and even the emotional faculties of men are unable to make sense of what has occurred.

These lines presents Bottom as newly humbled by his experience in the forest which he sees as beyond human control. They further divide the illusory experiences of the night with rational human faculties. His comments are also quite ironic, for Shakespeare himself has described the contents of the dream by writing this very play. Bottom’s wish that his dream serve itself as fodder for Peter Quince’s play directs the audience’s attention to this exact incongruity. Shakespeare thus subtly differentiate between two processes: comprehending an event and conveying it through art. Though man may not be able to make sense of Bottom’s dream, that dream can be transformed into art that might be able to give them a kind of access to the experience of the dream.

Act 5, scene 1 Quotes
More strange than true. I never may believe
These antique fables nor these fairy toys.
Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.
The lunatic, the lover, and the poet
Are of imagination all compact. (2)
Related Characters: Theseus (speaker)
Page Number: 5.1.208
Explanation and Analysis:

The lovers have recounted their tale to Theseus and Hippolyte. While Hippolyte is sympathetic to the story, Theseus believes it to be entirely fantastical, with no basis in reality.

His explanation for their stories does not rely on magic or other forms of supernatural possibility. Instead, he contends that it is natural for the addled brains of lovers to experience reality in a warped way. He places in parallel first “lovers and madmen” and then “the lunatic, the lover, and the poet,” contending that each sees the world in fantastical terms that have little to do with reality. Indeed, the similarity between insanity and romance is well-trod territory in Shakespeare’s work—and the new reference to “the poet” is an enticing point. After all, Shakespeare is himself “the poet” of this work, just as Oberon and Puck were "the poets" of the performance in the woods. In both cases, it seems, this role gave them access to unique imaginative capacities.

Theseus, however, sees little value in that mindset. By contrasting the verbs “apprehend” and “comprehends,” he returns to the motif of visual perception, arguing that what lunatics see is distinctly different from the rational conclusions of “cool reason.” He expresses a firm belief in logical rather than experiential knowledge. Yet this allegiance to rationality was unsuccessful at the play’s onset in resolving the lovers’ spat: Shakespeare thus shows the limitations of Theseus’ perspective, implying that value remains in the poet, madman, and lover’s practices, even if they are fundamentally irrational.

Not a mouse
Shall disturb this hallow'd house:
I am sent with broom before,
To sweep the dust behind the door. (297)
Related Characters: Robin Goodfellow (Puck) (speaker)
Page Number: 5.1.404-407
Explanation and Analysis:

As the play draws to a close, Puck enters alone and reflects on its denouement. He avows to leave behind a tranquil environment.

Earlier, Snug mistakenly worried that the audience of his play would mistake it for real. Here, Puck acts as if the play in fact is real and promises to sweep up after it and scrupulously clean the space of anything from the play that remains. Puck thus reiterates both how all that has occurred will soon fade into the past and be "unreal" to the audience that watched the play, but also that the play will leave remnants behind with the audience. In other words, he asserts both the plays unreality and its reality, and in so doing once again highlights the magic of theater, which is to find a common ground between reality and unreality in which actors, characters, and audience can co-exist.

These lines also subtly allude to the physical space of a theater. After Shakespeare’s play has ended, all will indeed be silent, and custodians will presumably have to sweep it with a “broom.” Puck thus verifies that he has been playing the metaphorical role of stage assistant to Oberon throughout their play within this play. And he cleverly describes the very space in which the audience sits as “this hallow’d house.” Shakespeare thus likens the ephemeral nature of this play to the broader experience of attending theater—in which great actions are staged for a moment but then soon return to quiet absence.

If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumbered here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend,
If you pardon, we will mend.
And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearned luck
Now to 'scape the serpent's tongue,
We will make amends ere long,
Else the Puck a liar call.
So, goodnight unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends. (430)
Related Characters: Robin Goodfellow (Puck) (speaker)
Page Number: 5.1.440-
Explanation and Analysis:

Puck is left alone on the stage at the play’s end to address the audience directly. He recommends that they think of what has transpired as a dream.

This final monologue verifies the parallels that have been made between the performance of theater and the experience of a dream. Puck likens the actions to “visions” and trivializes the action by describing it as a “weak and idle theme”—as something that would appear ephemerally, in one’s dream. In that case, it would be easy to “mend” any offense because the consequences of that offense would be non-existent. Puck insists on his own honesty, and he challenges the audience to call him a “liar” if the play indeed does not fade away like a dream. These lines thus corroborate that the events are supposed to be seen as transitory, a perspective that would allow one to view from a distance, as art, all that has occurred.

By invoking his original name “Robin,” Puck also marks the shift back from the forest dreamscape into reality. Recall that the fairy bestowed that name on him in the first supernatural scene in the play. Thus by taking back his own original identity, Puck signals to the audience that they will now resume their normal human endeavors beyond the confines of Shakespeare’s work. In this way, Shakespeare presents the theater as itself a way to escape normal human concerns for a moment—to take on new identities in a metaphorical dreamscape or forest environment, before returning to reality.