Said to be written for an aristocratic wedding, William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream can encourage classroom discussion on Elizabethan ideals surrounding love and marriage, as well as on the nuances Shakespeare includes through the various romantic conflicts. Certain strands of these conflicts emerge from a harsh Athenian law, allowing for implicit criticism via a contrast with the natural setting, magical phenomena, and chaotic situations within the play's enchanted forest. Students can also examine how Shakespeare uses prose and verse to differentiate characters of different stations.

In addition to social critique, Shakespeare's aesthetic choices raise issues of authorship and performance, as the playwright draws off Greek myth and English folklore and examines the line between reality and fiction. For instance, teachers can use Bottom's troupe to demonstrate how suspension of disbelief aids a performance, and how men played both male and female roles in Elizabethan theater. Finally, students can decide to what extent Theseus's earlier claim that "the lunatic, the lover and the poet / Are of imagination all compact” is justified by the text and discuss the validity of Puck's claim in the ending monologue that the play is “but a dream."

Summary

In A Midsummer Night's Dream, Athenian Egeus brings his daughter Hermia before Theseus and his fiancée Hippolyta to demand the death penalty because Hermia refuses to marry Demetrius. Faced with the ultimatum to obey, die, or live celibate, Hermia runs away with her lover Lysander, first telling her friend Helena that she need not fear losing Demetrius. Helena, however, informs Demetrius of their flight, and all four lovers traverse the forest as the fairy king Oberon drugs his wife Titania with a love potion to win a quarrel. Seeing Helena's plight, Oberon thinks to solve multiple problems simultaneously, but his servant Puck does not carry out the orders as planned, resulting in both men falling for Helena instead. Meanwhile, the drugged Titania falls for an inept, conceited actor named Bottom who Puck has pranked to have a donkey’s head.

Objectives for Teaching A Midsummer Night's Dream

  • Elucidate the ideals and nuances of romance as shown within the play.
  • Analyze the presence of illusions within and outside of the enchanted forest.
  • Discuss the allusions to Greek myth and English folklore.
  • Connect Elizabethan theater conventions to the comedy evoked by Bottom and company.
  • Differentiate between characters based on Shakespeare's use of verse or prose.
  • Identify the two geographical locations within the play and explain the effect each has on the characters.
  • Discuss Shakespeare's treatment of women in the play.

Key Elements and Techniques

  • Allusion
  • Blank Verse
  • Foreshadowing
  • Irony
  • Juxtaposition
  • Pun
  • Setting
  • Symbol

Themes and Motifs

  • Love and Marriage — Although the play celebrates the ideal of true love by concluding with three simultaneous marriages, the protagonists' magically induced caprice emphasizes the irrationality and difficulty of romance. Love is also shown to have an effect outside of the relationship; one marriage forms a political union, and a marital squabble between fairy rulers causes chaos in the natural world.
  • Nature and the Supernatural — Magic and the natural world are treated as inextricably linked, with a fairy marital conflict causing fluctuating seasonal conditions, and with both serving as anarchic contrasts to society. While magic creates multiple conflicts within the play, the protagonists initially flee to the forest to escape arbitrary, unjust laws, and magic ultimately rectifies the love decahedron.
  • Illusion and Reality —  The characters often remain unclear as to what constitutes reality, frequently using dreams as an explanation for supernatural phenomena. At the same time, Shakespeare plays with the illusion of theatrical performance, staging a botched performance that refuses to allow suspension of disbelief, and concluding with a statement that the play itself is "No more yielding but a dream."

Related Works

Theme of Love and Marriage

 

Theme of Nature and the Supernatural

 

Theme of Illusion and Reality

Key Facts

  • Length: 84 pages
  • Lexile Measure: 610
  • Publication Date: ca. 1595
  • Recommended Grade Band: 10 – 11

Movies

Like many Shakespearean plays, A Midsummer Night's Dream has been adapted strictly and loosely in various forms of media, including musicals, ballets, and television episodes. For a straightforward film adaption, teachers can try showing A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935); although the movie is a 133-minute box office flop that received mixed reviews for its acting, it won multiple awards for its cinematography, music, and dance. A more recent 1999 version (116 minutes long) is transplanted to a more modern Italian setting and received mixed, but mostly positive reviews.

Your students will love:

  • The forbidden romance and convoluted love decahedron
  • The fantastic settings and multiple narratives

Students may have problems with:

  • Understanding allusions to myth and folklore
  • Shakespeare's use of verse and symbolism

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