A Midsummer Night’s Dream Themes, Symbols, and Literary Devices

Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream offers incredible thematic richness and depth. Many of the themes are intimately related, showcasing Shakespeare’s seamless storytelling ability. For example, being able to control oneself or, in the case of the male characters, to control the women of the book, requires being able to trust one’s perception and thus to be able to act on it. In giving the theme of fooled perception a central place, Shakespeare destabilizes much more for the characters of his play.

Foiled Perception

A recurrent theme throughout Shakespeare’s plays, this theme encourages us to consider how easily we may be fooled by our own perception. Mention of eyes and "eyne," a more poetic version of the plural, may be found throughout A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Furthermore, all characters find themselves unable to trust their own eyes, as, for example, Titania finds herself in love with an ugly donkey-headed fool.

The trickery of Puck’s magic flower, the central plot device, is the clearest symbol of this theme, as it is responsible for so much of the foiled perception of the characters of the play. With this theme, Shakespeare points out that while our actions may often be bold and full of confidence, they are always based on our perception of the world, which is fragile and changeable. Lysander, for example, is so in love with Hermia he would elope with her; however, once his perception is changed (through the magic flower), he changes his mind and pursues Helena.

Similarly, Shakespeare encourages us to consider our own perception as it is involved in watching the play. After all, the famous closing soliloquy, delivered by the trickster Puck, invites us to consider our time watching the play as a "dream," just as Helena, Hermia, Lysander, and Demetrius think that the events that occurred were themselves a dream. Thus, Shakespeare involves us as the audience in his foiling of our perception, as he presents us with fictional events as if they had really happened. With this closing soliloquy, we are put on the level of the Athenian youths, questioning what was real and what was a dream.

Control Versus Disorder

Much of the play centers on the inability of the characters to control what they think they have a right to control. The main plot device of the love potion flower is an excellent example of this: the characters may feel they should be able to decide who they love. However, even the queen of the fairies Titania is made to fall in love with a donkey-headed fool; the loyal Lysander is similarly made to fall in love with Helena and to spurn Hermia, whom he had loved so arduously hours before. The device of the flower thus alludes to our inability to control our feelings, so much so that it may feel like we are controlled by an external force. This force is personified in Puck, the mischievous fairy jester, who himself is unable to control his actions, mistaking Lysander for Demetrius.

Similarly, the male figures attempt throughout the play to control the women. The start of the play is an early indication of this theme, as Egeus appeals to the authority of another man, Theseus, to control his daughter in her disobedience. Ultimately, Egeus is unable to get his way; Hermia and Lysander are set to marry at the end of the play.

Theseus, however, is one character whose authority remains more or less unquestioned; he represents the ability of humanity to assert its will and see it actualized. After all, if the lawfulness of Athens is juxtaposed to the chaos of the fairies’ forest outside, then there is some level at which human order can prevail.

Literary Device: Play-Within-a-Play

Another recurring theme in Shakespeare’s works, this motif invites viewers to consider that we are also watching a play, thus parroting the theme of foiled perception. As this theme often functions in Shakespeare’s plays, we notice that the characters we are watching are actors, despite the fact that we become so emotionally involved in their storyline. For example, as we, Shakespeare’s audience, watch Shakespeare’s actors watching a play, we would normally be invited to zoom out and consider the ways in which we ourselves are involved in a play in our everyday lives, for example, how we might be fooled by the disingenuous acting of others. However, in the case of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the play that is performed, The Most Lamentable Tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe, is notably terrible, so much so that its audience interjects its own humorous comments. However, Shakespeare still encourages us to consider the ways we are involved in foiled perception. After all, although the play-within-a-play is clearly a play, we are invited to forget the frame narrative that surrounds it: Shakespeare’s play itself. By presenting a terrible play by which no one is fooled, Shakespeare makes more explicit the ways that we are, in fact, deceived by good actors. Again, in our everyday lives, sometimes we are so fooled by our false perception that we feel some fairy, like Puck, could be slipping us a magic potion without us realizing.

Challenging of Gender Roles, Female Disobedience

The women of the play offer a consistent challenge to male authority. A popular idea at the time of the play’s writing was that of the “Great Chain of Being,” which outlined the world’s hierarchy: God ruled over men, who had power over women, who were superior to beasts, and so on. While we see with the marriage of Theseus and Hippolyta the preservation of this hierarchy, particularly despite Hippolyta’s mythical status as empowered Amazon queen, the very first scene shows another woman going against this hierarchy. After all, Hermia’s commitment to Lysander is in direct contradiction of her father’s desires. In the same vein, Titania explicitly disobeys her husband in refusing his order to hand over the changeling boy. Helena, meanwhile, is perhaps one of the most interesting women in the play. She attributes her cowardly and demure nature to her femininity, chastising Demetrius: "Your wrongs do set a scandal on my sex; / We cannot fight for love, as men may do" (II, i). She does, however, still pursue Demetrius, rather than the other way around. Although she does not win him through her pursuit explicitly, Oberon sends Puck to enchant Demetrius with the love potion once he witnesses her display of love. While her power must still be channeled through a male source, Helena ultimately gets what she wants.