The poet observes.
A Midsummer Night's Dream

Romeo and Juliet is considered a tragedy and A Midsummer Night's Dream a comedy. The characters of A Midsummer Night's Dream are portrayed as ridiculously unreal, while the two lovers in Verona express engaging emotion. The accepted passion from Verona might suggest that Shakespeare is a spokesman for great and romantic love. The humorous point of view that emerges from the comedy, on the other hand, leads to a smiling rejection of all the ‘low’ or disturbed behaviour displayed during the midsummer night confusion.

The justification for not considering the events that take place as serious meets us even in the name. The curious story throws a dreamy veil over all that happens in the mythical forest with its fairies, its fairy-kings and amazon-queens, together with Puck who moves lightly as a spirit across tremendous distances. The sprites of the story have had the most amazing magical powers put at their disposal. The result of the dreamlike quality and the supernatural powers is an exuberant game, where the most down-to-earth element is a group of artisans from Athens who are going to perform their love drama at a royal wedding. But everything displayed by these simple actors is a completely hilarious caricature, so that we never have to take them seriously.

The superficial story of
A Midsummer Night's Dream is incredibly involved. Four kinds of creatures take part in a pulsating pattern.

First, there are Theseus the Duke of Athens and the Amazon-queen Hippolyta. The couple are about to celebrate their wedding, despite the fact that the start of their affair was a miserable rape. Then there is a young quartet from Athens: the beauty Hermia and her two suitors Lysander and Demetrius, plus Demetrius' former sweetheart, the equally lovely Helena, whom he can no longer stand. The six artisans performing "Pyramus and Thisbe" make up a clearly subordinate group. Finally, we have a fairy-king deeply jealous of his queen. Along with Robin Goodfellow (Puck), Oberon appears as Theseus' equal; he interferes freely in the lives of the two groups from the city, with love charms and a thousand complications.

‘The present’ as a philosophy of life

A Midsummer Night's Dream resembles Romeo and Juliet. As the plot of the comedy develops there are ever more peculiar twists until they turn the whole play around. Attitudes and results then turn out to be exactly as in the Verona tragedy, only the circumstances are different.

An obvious reference to
Romeo and Juliet is the story of "The Most Lamentable Comedy and Most Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisbe". For the comic theatrical performance in honour of the royal couple is in every respect a travesty of Romeo's story:

The pair love each other and are filled with the most tender feelings. Originally they were separated by a wall between their properties, but through a very tiny “chink” they are able to exchange heavenly kisses. Thereupon they arrange to meet again somewhere else in the moonlight. By Ninus' tomb Thisbe is frightened by a roaring lion and flees. A moment later Pyramus arrives, finds her bloody shirt, and kills himself. Right after Thisbe returns and kills herself on the body of her betrothed!

The ridiculous performance of the artisans would not be worthy of all that much attention were it not for the fact that
Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night's Dream appear to have been written at about the same time. If indeed they were, we should not be surprised at finding certain common themes. But the similarity can be interpreted in two different ways:

One is that Shakespeare has used the common scheme for a joke in
A Midsummer Night's Dream, and has thereupon shown how much depth he can inject into such a story in Romeo and Juliet. If so, we have to do with an author who presages absurd drama. This view is maintained by the Polish Shakespearean scholar Jan Kott (cf chapters 8 "What kind of mechanism?", 10 "Text as a sign of something else", 13 first section and "What goes before", and 17 "A mode of understanding").

The second possibility is that both versions of the story have been used for approximately the same purpose, and that taken together they show us the poet's views on the relationship of emotions to reason.

A Midsummer Night's Dream was written before Romeo and Juliet, this latter interpretation seems preferable. Otherwise, we would have to believe that the author could hold a thoroughly satirical view of the old story of Pyramus and Thisbe and still, immediately afterwards, sanction a similar development in Romeo and Juliet.

But if the two plays were written in the opposite order, i.e. with
A Midsummer Night's Dream last, it still seems likely that Shakespeare found the story presented by the artisans a suitable means of illustrating his ideas, with a jovial sidelong glance towards Verona.

Certainly the two plays seem to throw light on each other. In the title of the parodic play within the play, and many times in the dialogue, comedy and tragedy are confused or equated. The happenings that take place in the comedy represent a drastic strengthening of points we have examined in
Romeo and Juliet. In addition to the story of Pyramus and Thisbe, the summer night brings new, powerful revelations through Oberon's magic.

The magic fluid makes people change their feelings on the spot. Puck wipes it across the eyes of three of the characters who, on awakening, fall wildly in love with the first person they set eyes on. Lysander drops Hermia in favour of Helena. Demetrius once again loves the Helena he has hated in the meantime, and the elf-queen Titania goes crazy over a conceited artisan, notwithstanding that Puck has in the meantime given him the head of an ass.

The women react against the violent reversals of the love juice. Hermia is indignant at the faithless Lysander and gives a quick demonstration of some of the feelings that might easily have been Rosaline's in
Romeo and Juliet, while Helena gives similar voice to the disbelief that would strike any sensible person in Juliet's position. After all, both Helena and Juliet are showered with declarations of undying devotion from lovers who have immediately before given similar assurances to completely different women. Finally the inopportune bewitchment is taken away again, and the men go back to their first sweethearts quite unashamedly. — It is almost as in life!

Swift changes are the tools of the fairy tale. They have by and large the same kind of function as the
plots in the literature of the 19th century. Fairy tales, plots and developmental stories uncover facts which are otherwise hidden. The tale enlightens the audience by means of supernatural transformations, making fun of our disturbed attitudes. The plot accomplishes something similar through letting the characters act in secret and pretend to be other than they are. Both are means to the same end as are the analyses in terms of developmental psychology offered by Ibsen and his successors. All three types of stories expose unfortunate sides of the characters they deal with.

Oberon's herbal juices serve to expose ridiculous sides of romantic love. Shakespeare starts by using the spell to explain rapid, strong change of feeling and has the spectators laugh at these curious creatures who alter quite regardless of their ‘deepest’ longings. Next the spell throws a piercing light on the feelings in our own lives. For the behaviour of the bewitched lovers is precisely like that of Romeo, in a moment replacing Rosaline with Juliet and unable to wait a single instant before he marries the replacement.

The magic juice melts into the artisans' performance of "Pyramus and Thisbe". The blend is all the more efficacious because
Romeo and Juliet has already given us an ironical characterisation of such historic love queens as Thisbe.

The theatre as an image

Some of the basic philosophy of the play emerges:

He who loves lives in the moment, in clear contrast to the extended time and to the considerations that present themselves through lasting effects upon other people. At first the lovers live exclusively through their eyes. Then they stop believing what they see and start contemplating through their feelings instead. When Demetrius falls in love with Hermia, he ceases to see Helena's beauty, though it is as great as her friend's. Shakespeare here falls into line with much modern psychology concerned with what we may call ‘vigilant attention’, which has placed increasing emphasis on the sources we supply from ourselves in contradistinction to those supplied by the outer world.

The tremendous reversals in the play are explained. When Hermia refuses Demetrius, his desire grows out of all proportion, while Helena's steady love fills him only with repulsion. On this point the author's views coincide with those of ‘cynical’ thinkers like La Rochefoucauld, Stendhal and Nietzsche. All root their reasoning in ‘hunger’ and ‘satisfaction’. The tangles that result reveal a gap between the unrestrained feelings that we experience and balanced, rational reasoning. The clear insight which life gives us into this contradiction is expressed in the play, if only by the ‘silly’ Bottom: “.. reason and love keep little company together nowadays — the more the pity that some honest neighbours will not make them friends.”

Shakespeare adds to our confusion by letting all the characters express themselves in the same passionate, flowery language, whether their feelings are life-long or just the hot air induced by the herbal juice. A climax occurs when Demetrius pleads love in such lyrical terms as can only be felt by Helena as an insult, given his previous rejection of her.

The effect of the spells is a series of crises. Everybody is frightened by his or her volatile emotions or by the transformations of the others. No-one completely returns to his old self. As Romeo wished to discard his own name in order to please Juliet and her family, so the betrayal of both her lovers leads Hermia to ponder her position: “Am not I Hermia?” she asks unhappily, when beloved Lysander calls her an “Ethiope”, “tawny Tartar”, and “dwarf”!

The poet's stand on the issues must be extracted from a series of conclusions drawn by the observers within the play. The fairies are the most neutral. Oberon will have everyone “think no more of this night's accidents But as the fierce vexation of a dream”. Titania believes the events were “visions”. The terse Prologue of the actors has a Solomonic remark regarding what the play will show the audience: “The actors are at hand, and by their show You shall know all that you are like to know”! Duke Theseus maintains that lovers and lunatics have “seething brains” and along with poets they are “of imagination all compact”. Down-to-earth Flute goes further when he says that a great love is simply nothing: “A paramour is, God bless us, a thing of naught.”

Shakespeare gives us the benefit of a more complex opinion through several remarks in the last scene:

The characters voice witty comments on the performance of the artisans. When Thisbe is scared by her roaring lion, Demetrius praises the animal's voice, Theseus Thisbe's running, and the queen the shining of the actor who plays the moon! But the task of the theatre is to grip the audience. Even at its best the theatre is nothing but a play with shadows. If it is to accomplish its task, it therefore requires the spectators to try and enter into everything that the actors are struggling to bring across. We need to do more than criticise imperfect acting; we must avoid all superficial attitudes toward the stage. A simple performance given lovingly is valuable even if not eloquent; beyond its imperfections an open, gracious mind is led to catch quick glimpses of a message. Taken as a whole the play shows us more than “fancy's images, And grows to something of great constancy”. The play has therefore no need of excuses or explicatory epilogues. When all on stage are dead, the actors have done their duty, even though something is still lacking. For the absolutely convincing tragedy is only achieved when the author takes part and hangs himself with the heroine's garter! — the complete merging of play and life.

Oberon remains true to his simple nature: He decrees that the three newly wed couples shall be “Ever true in loving”. Their children shall be safe from moles and harelips!

As if no greater dangers lurked? and as if such a humble outcome were the only meaning of Shakespeare's reflective comedy about life's eternal contrast between the moment and the world.