A Midsummer Night's Dream

by

William Shakespeare

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A Midsummer Night's Dream: Oxymorons 2 key examples

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Definition of Oxymoron
An oxymoron is a figure of speech in which two contradictory terms or ideas are intentionally paired in order to make a point—particularly to reveal a deeper or hidden truth... read full definition
An oxymoron is a figure of speech in which two contradictory terms or ideas are intentionally paired in order to make a point—particularly to reveal... read full definition
An oxymoron is a figure of speech in which two contradictory terms or ideas are intentionally paired in order to... read full definition
Act 1, scene 2
Explanation and Analysis—Monstrous Little:

Act 1, Scene 2 is Bottom’s first scene. In one of his first lines, Bottom uses an oxymoron while expressing his enthusiasm for a role. He and his fellow actors have gathered in Athens to discuss an upcoming performance, and they are discussing who should play which role. It becomes a difficult task when it comes to the role of Thisbe, the romantic heroine of their tragedy. The group of actors are often the source of humor for the audience, because of their miscommunications and how earnestly they make silly mistakes. After Quince assigns the female role to Flute, who protests, Bottom volunteers himself as an alternate. Using an oxymoron, he says: 

An I may hide my face, let me play Thisbe too. 
I’ll speak in a monstrous little voice

He then goes on to demonstrate his "monstrous little voice," but Quince shuts him down and assigns him the role of Pyramus instead. Bottom’s offer contains the oxymoron "monstrous little"—monstrous and little have nearly opposite meanings. Therefore, his statement is practically meaningless, as a voice could never be both monstrous and little at the same time, a mistake that he does not seem to realize. The purpose of this oxymoron is to characterize and introduce Bottom, who—once in the forest—ends up in a series of absurd situations and is often the butt of jokes. His accidental oxymoron makes him seem simple but enthusiastic, qualities that he continues to exhibit. It therefore helps the audience understand why he ends up in so much trouble later in the play. 

Act 5, scene 1
Explanation and Analysis—Tragical Mirth:

In Act 5, Scene 1, the recently married couples have assembled to watch a performance of Pyramus and Thisbe. As the play is introduced, Theseus incredulously repeats lines from the prologue, calling attention to the presence of multiple oxymorons. The play is a source of humor and silliness for both the audience and the assembled characters. The many contradictions characterize the actors and make fun of the seriousness of earlier conflicts. After the prologue, Theseus says: 

“A tedious brief scene of young Pyramus 
And his love Thisbe, very tragical mirth."
"Merry" and "tragical"? "Tedious" and "brief"?
That is hot ice and wondrous strange snow! 
How shall we find the concord of this discord?

Theseus calls attention to two primary oxymorons in the prologue. The first describes the play as both tedious and brief, implying that it is both too short and too long. This, as Theseus points out, is an impossibility. The play is also both merry and tragical, the source of both laughter and great sadness. Theseus compares these oxymorons to "hot ice" in order to highlight that these are silly and impossible claims to make about a performance. There is no way for a play to be all of these things. His response to the play highlights the foolishness of the actors and sets the scene for the humorous performance to follow. This is not the first time that the actors are guilty of making oxymoronic claims, but having another character—especially one as important as the duke of Athens—highlight the inconsistencies creates humor at their expense.

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