A Midsummer Night’s Dream is believed to have been written by Shakespeare between 1590 and 1596, when Shakespeare was around 30 years old. In the comedy, Theseus, Duke of Athens, and Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, are to be married, but Athenians Hermia and Helena are experiencing more difficulty in being with their loved ones. By law, Hermia must marry Demetrius, who her father has chosen for her, but she truly loves Lysander. And Helena, unfortunately, loves Demetrius, who would be happy to marry Hermia. Meanwhile, the fairy king and queen are having their own marital conflict–Oberon wants Titania to give up her changeling to be Oberon’s henchman, but she refuses. Spurred by his frustration with Titania, Oberon sends Robin Goodfellow, a fairy, to play a trick on his wife with a potion, but Robin happens upon the four young lovers in the forest and adds the potion to their conflicts as well. And while all this is going on, a troupe of lowly actors called the Mechanicals traipse through the forest rehearsing a play for the wedding celebration, getting caught up in all the madness. Through a tangle of love changes, the lovers all end up with the right people (or at least who Robin thinks are the right people) and all becomes well among the fairies.
Especially because Shakespeare wrote the play as a comedy, through it he can provide us with insight into several aspects of humanity–specifically, how we address conflict. In each of the conflicts of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one character’s desires are opposed to those of the people around her, if we look from the perspective of the primary female characters. For example, Hermia’s desire to marry Lysander is opposed to Demetrius’s desire to marry her, to her father’s desire that she marry Demetrius, and on a larger scale, to the Athenian laws that she marry who her father names for her. Helen has a similar but worse problem–she loves Demetrius, but no one wants to marry her, nor is she being forced to marry anyone. Helena is completely without love while Hermia has two suitors; here is the primary imbalance Shakespeare introduces, the reason that an intervention will be necessary. Meanwhile, the fairies have entered into a much more petty conflict over who should get Titania’s changeling.
In the case of each of these conflicts, a solution only comes about after Robin introduces a catalyst, the potion. The potion, an outside intervention, and a magical one at that, which affects the minds of the characters, is the only thing in the play that could enact such a complete change in the situation of the characters. Unless they changed their minds, their situations would not change; their conflicts would remain. However, through the introduction of the potion as a catalyst for change in the characters, Shakespeare shows us that in our own conflicts, sometimes a change in our circumstances or an outside intervention is necessary for any progress to come about. In addition, the fact that the potion primarily affects a mental state of the characters, their being in love or not in love with whomever, demonstrates to us that many times the solution to our problems lies in looking at them from a different perspective.
The hierarchy of characters, I think, is where Shakespeare begins to set up the grand scheme of his comedy: he introduces this hierarchy of beings (the fairies, then the Athenians, then the Mechanicals), then makes them all equal through the contradictory levels of their conflicts. Shakespeare reveals the hierarchy to us primarily through the language of the characters themselves, but it can also be seen through the locations inhabited by the sets of characters. If we imagine concentric circles, the fairies inhabit the center circle, named Fairyland, the Athenians inhabit the next circle, called Athens, and the Mechanicals inhabit everywhere else. As a traveling troupe, their place in the world can perhaps not even be encircled. So we see that the fairies are the center of the world, those who know everything that goes on and who have the ability to intervene, while the Mechanicals as the lower characters are as far and spread out as possible, not relevant to any one part of the world for much time at all.
But by looking further into Shakespeare’s genius at his characters’ language, we can see even more the hierarchy of those characters. First, the Mechanicals do not speak in any verse at all but in vernacular. They even get words mixed up (there is more of Shakespeare’s comedy here, if you notice it): in Act I Scene 2 a character named Bottom, who by the way is later turned into a donkey, calls the chariot of Apollo “Phibbus’s car” and mistakes the word “obscenely” for “obscurely”. The Athenians speak in verse and often rhyme, but the fairies’ speech is contained to strict verse. As verse was considered the highest form of communication at Shakespeare’s time, it makes sense that the characters at the top of his hierarchy would communicate in the most graceful and perfect verse.
Several literary theorists have proposed that comedy is the best way to enact change in an audience. We are distanced from the plight of the always-safe characters as we laugh at them, but we learn their lessons with them as their problems are solved. We experience the comedy of A Midsummer Night’s Dream through the mistakes of the characters (especially the Mechanicals), through the absurdity of the conflicts, worsened by the potions, and through the contrasts between the levels of the characters. Much can be said of Shakespeare’s genius in this particular play: the fantasy he seamlessly incorporates, the complexity of the conflicts, the beauty of his language, and the question of identity brought about by the many artificial changes made to the characters in the play, but at its simplest level, the play exemplifies the teaching quality of comedy; comedy is the potion the audience needs to address their own conflicts and to affect change in their own lives. Through A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare allows us to experience the problems of his characters from a distance and shows us the fundamental solutions for the conflicts in our own lives.