Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Explore the theme of dreams in A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Type ‘dream’ into Spotify, and have a browse through the thousand tunes on offer: Taylor Swift demands to be remembered in her lover’s Wildest Dreams; Mariah Carey wants to share forever with her Dreamlover; Beyoncé is confounded by her alluring Sweet Dreams that are also beautiful nightmares.
Modern-day romance might be fuelled by dreams, but they also have a funny way of revealing our secret thoughts. Ever since the publication of Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud’s On the Interpretation of Dreams (1899), we’ve learnt to analyse dreams as dramatizations of our unconscious minds and repressed desires.
But what about people in Shakespeare’s time? How did they understand their night-time fantasies, and what’s the significance of dreams in Shakespeare’s most magical romantic comedy?
Like Freud, early modern dreamers also believed that sleeping visions revealed something about a person’s mental or physical state, or their future health. Pondering deeply on the significance of dreams was encouraged by physicians and philosophers as a way of communicating with God. Later in the seventeenth century a preacher defined a dream as ‘a close-covered dish brought in by night for the soul to feed on’, which the awakened subject could then ‘uncover’.
Bu there were dream sceptics, too. The writer Thomas Nashe in his pamphlet The Terrors of the Night (1594) argued that ‘a dream is nothing else but the echo of our conceits in the day’. He called dreams the ‘froth of the fancy which the day hath left undigested’ – scraps of imagination which lingered in the mind after the body had turned itself off for the day.
So dreams occupied a complicated place in early modern minds. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1595) Shakespeare gave voice to a spectrum of views about their significance.
He borrowed some of Thomas Nashe’s scornful scepticism to flesh out Theseus’ attitude of ‘cool reason’: in Act V the Athenian duke is dubious about the lovers’ experience of magical goings-on in the forest, accounting the story ‘more strange than true’ and ascribing their fantasies to an overheated imagination.
But the play seems to give far more creative scope to the possibilities of dreams and waking visions. All six of the lovers – Helena, Hermia, Lysander, Demetrius, Titania and Bottom – fall asleep, most of them several times over. Once the action of the play moves to the Athenian woods, the story unfolds in the bleary intervals between these unrestful naps. Oberon’s love-potion is certainly the immediate cause of the confusions that arise, but the whole play has the quality of trippy bewilderment that Hermia expresses when she jolts awake out of a dream, exclaiming at the ‘serpent crawling [up her] breast’ and eating her heart.
Hermia’s revealingly phallic serpent also suggests that Shakespeare knew something about the relationship between sexual desire and dreams. Things we want or fear might find expression in dreams; being in love – or lust – feels rather like being in a dream. Looking back on her night of errors, Hermia thinks ‘I see these things with parted eye, / When everything seems double.’
Shakespeare’s first audience was likely to have regarded the woozy world of erotic mix-up in the Athenian woods with mixed feelings, to say the least. Early modern people were told to keep their passions under control; all manner of mental and physical illnesses could be expected to result from poorly-managed bodily desires. The four Athenian runaways end up shuffled into the ‘right’ pairings, but their impulsive behaviour isn’t entirely forgotten, even if it is forgiven by Theseus and Egeus.
It’s Bottom who models the wisest behaviour in response to the dreamy experiences in the forest. The ‘most rare vision’ of his time in Titania’s bower defies interpretation, a memory ‘past the wit of man to say what dream it was’. Bottom’s dream, he concludes, ‘hath no bottom’: unexplainable and beyond analysis, it just is.
Perhaps the best thing to do with these midsummer night’s dreams is enjoy them. As Theseus dispatches the recently-married lovers to bed at the end of the play, Puck appears to tells us that we too ‘have but slumbered here / While these visions did appear’: without realising it, we’ve been indulging in the same strange visions as Bottom, Titania, and the Athenian lovers…
Dr Will Tosh