Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Human problems lend themselves to many solutions, some of them with an oppressive heavy-hand and others with a gentle touch. Gravity easily oppresses and complicates problems whereas lightheartedness  simplifies the complex and applies a magical gentleness that Shakespeare compares to the play of the fairies at night that perform their favors in the silence of sleep with no one hearing or seeing them. The problem that daytime Athens with all its business and busyness cannot solve, the nighttime world of the forests with its mirth and revels resolves in the most mysterious and hidden of ways. The king of the fairies’ love juice that quietly anoints the eyelids of the sleeping lovers in the forest proves more miraculous than all the threats and warnings issued by the authorities of Athens invoking the letter of the law and threatening confinement to a nunnery or death by execution if Hermia does not marry Demetrius to please her father.

What is this magic of the fairies which they perform when they revel at night? Two events occur in the forest after midnight that do not happen in Athens during the daytime: the angels play and the mortals sleep. The magic of the fairies is the miraculous medicine of play, recognized for its healing properties. Play is re-creation, the refreshing and renewing of the human spirit. Play produces catharsis, a release of emotions that need relief or expression that leads to peace or rest. Play combats the deadly sin of sloth named “the noon-day demon” by medieval monks that recognized the need to balance work with play to renew the soul as well as energize the body. Play cures excess and achieves balance, a golden mean that leads to self-knowledge and reminds man that he is neither god nor buffoon.  Play warns of the danger of taking oneself too seriously.

Robin Goodfellow, the impish fairy known as Puck who calls himself “the merry wanderer of night” who plays jokes and administers the love potion of healing King Oberon prescribes to bring “gentle concord” to a hostile, bickering world.  The magical love juice restores common sense to Demetrius who foolishly imagines he loves Hermia who has no interest in him when he has been courting Helena with every hint of marriage. Two men court Hermia and no man woos Helena. This derangement does not justify the threat of death or a nunnery to solve the love triangle but a gentle touch of fairy magic. Oberon’s love juice anointing the eyelids of the lovers at night performs wonders, clearing the eyes of Demetrius to see again the beauty of Helena and freeing Lysander and Hermia to marry Hermia. The gentle Oberon and the mirthful Puck uncomplicate the lovers’ quarrels that deadly seriousness exacerbates.

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The magic of sleep also possesses the miraculous properties of play. While the lovers are at rest during the night in the forest, the fairies clear their mind of nonsense and rearrange the events around them so that every Jack shall have his Jill. At first both lovers pursue Hermia while Helena goes unappreciated. When the mischievous Puck anoints the wrong lover’s eyes with the potion, Both Demetrius and Lysander propose love to Helena while Hermia now feels insulted. Finally sleep brings healing as the fairies match the four lovers properly. Sleep brightens the eyes so that they see more clearly. Sleep relaxes the mind so that it thinks more sensibly. Sleep releases the body from work so that the soul revitalizes it.  While the mortals sleep, the fairies play and rearrange the disorder of the day with healing ointments and gentle touches. Without the intervention of the law or the use of cruel punishments, the fairies effortlessly simplify the entanglements of love. Sleep restores sanity and cures folly in the quietest and most painless way by banishing fantasies and rearranging the objects of the mind so that first things and second things assume their natural place.

At a time when the Puritan work ethic frowned on Sunday pastimes like bowling on the green, suspected innocent play as idleness and dissipation, condemned the Elizabethan theater as a source debauchery and sin, and killed the spirit of “merry old England,” Shakespeare affirms the traditional wisdom of Greek civilization and Catholic culture: man works in order to play, leisure is the basis of culture, no man can live without pleasure, and a drop of honey works greater wonders than a gallon of vinegar. The fun-loving, imaginative, and childlike fairies who do “fairy favors” in the night testify that life is more gift than reward, more grace than work, and more mysterious than legalistic. The laborers in the play, the rude mechanicals (Bottom the weaver, Snug the joiner, Quince the carpenter) have left the realm of business and work in Athens to enter the imaginative world of drama and rehearse their play of Pyramus and Thisbe for the nuptials of Duke Theseus and for the sheer fun of acting—play which awakens their humanity and makes them the most cordial and cheerful of men:. As Bottom insists,“Let me play the lion too. I will roar that it will do any man’s heart good to hear me; I will roar that I will make the Duke say, “Let him roar again’.”

The fun of the fairies and the play of the rude mechanicals are what Cardinal Newman in The Idea of the University calls “liberal” activities that are loved for their own sake as ends in themselves rather than pursued for utilitarian reasons as a means to an end. Like the enjoyment of friendship, the cultivation of beauty, and the love of learning, the delight in play—fun for its own sake—is always, Newman argues, intrinsically good and desirable, always “prolific” and “reproductive of good.” It “overflows, and spreads the likeness of itself all around.” This is the magic of the fairies that transforms in the mystery of the night a humdrum world into morning sunshine, into a jeweled universe sparkling with dewdrops:

Over hill, over dale,

Through bush, through brier,

Over park, over trail,

Through flood, through fire,

I do wander everywhere,

Swifter than the moon’s sphere.

And I serve the Fairy Queen,

To dew her orbs upon the green.

The cowslips tall her pensioners be.

In their gold coats spots you see;

These be rubies, fairy favors,

In those freckles live their savors.

  • Mitchell Kalpakgian

    Dr. Mitchell A. Kalpakgian (1941-2018) was a native of New England, the son of Armenian immigrants. He was Professor of English at Simpson College (Iowa) for 31 years. During his academic career, Dr. Kalpakgian received many academic honors, among them the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar Fellowship (Brown University, 1981); the Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship (University of Kansas, 1985); and an award from the National Endowment for the Humanities Institute on Children’s Literature.

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