A Midsummer Night's Dream: Theme Analysis

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In A Midsummer Night's Dream, Shakespeare shows many different kinds of love and marriage. There is the mature love of Theseus and Hippolyta; the more frantic, passionate and unstable love of the young people; and the power struggle between Oberon and Titania. The emphasis is both on the value of love and its strange, irrational aberrations, particularly those associated with the excesses and sudden u-turns of romantic love. The Pyramus and Thisbe play-within-the-play shows (albeit softened by farce), that love can also have tragic outcomes. Pyramus and Thisbe both die, like Romeo and Juliet, because of a misunderstanding. Perhaps as they watch Pyramus and Thisbe, the quartet of lovers might feel particularly grateful that the misunderstandings they went through in the wood were sorted out for good rather than ill.

There are many contrasts in the play, including that between reason and imagination, or between the rational and the nonrational elements in human experience. To a Renaissance person there would be no doubt about which was the superior. Reason, the intellect, the discriminating faculty, was what lifted human life above that of the beasts. Not only should reason rule passion, it should also supervise the imagination, which might otherwise run wild, without any basis in reality. This perspective is embodied in Theseus's speech at the beginning of Act 5.  Theseus does not believe that what happened to the lovers has any validity; lovers, madmen, and poets rely on imagination, and yet what they dream up has no real substance. 

Hippolyta disagrees with her new husband, and the play would seem to lend more support to her view than to his. Theseus's philosophy works well in the rational, orderly world of the court, where the ordinary laws of society function. But it cannot sort out the conflict between law and love that is at the heart of the quarrel between Egeus and Hermia, nor can it provide any comfort to Helena or bring Demetrius to his senses. It is only in the wood that a solution can emerge. We might think of the wood as symbolizing the irrational, unconscious elements of the psyche. It is these forces that toss the lovers every which way, before sanity and harmony are restored. But perhaps such disruption  is necessary. Perhaps when Lysander decides that he really loves Hermia, there is a corner of his psyche in which those feelings really do exist. By giving vent to them rather than repressing them, he eventually realizes that his love for Helena is far greater and more valuable than any feelings he may have for Hermia. And it should be noted that the impasse in which the lovers find themselves in the wood is eventually sorted out not by a rational discussion but by a piece of magic, courtesy of the benevolent Oberon. Magic is just the term we give to phenomena which cannot be understood by the rational mind. And it is Oberon and the fairies, not Theseus and his court, who have the last word, as they come into the palace at the end of the play to bless the inhabitants.

In addition to reason and imagination, there are many other contrasts in this carefully structured play, such as day / night; light / dark; wood / city;  fairy / mortal; dream / waking; appearance / reality; madness / sanity;  and love / law.