Allegory & Symbolism in A Midsummer Night's Dream

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      An allegory is a term which is generally used in the analysis of a literary work. An allegory means that a particular piece of work, be it a story, a poem, an artwork or a play; can be interpreted as having a deeper, latent or implicit message. This message is usually political or social in nature. It can be considered as a political or social commentary. Shakespeare's plays are generally allegorical in nature and can be interpreted in diverse ways.

      Religious allegory: A Midsummer Night's Dream is only superficially a comic fairy story. It can be interpreted as a religious allegory. Writing prose and poetry as religious allegory was a famous and a well-established Elizabethan literary device. Part of it was suggested by Dr. Patricia Parker, professor of English at Stanford, who is a leading expert on this play. She has suggested that the character of Puck is an allegory for the devil (the names Puck and Robin Goodfellow are both English names for the devil). The actions of Puck in the play are also reflective of the devil. Puck comes across as a sadist. He derives pleasure in making fun of people and playing pranks on them. Puck is a fairy and therefore has the privilege of using magic in executing his pranks. He therefore enjoys playing his pranks on the people from the human world. He transforms himself into various shapes like that of a different fruits. In one particular instance, he transforms himself into a stool. When an old lady tries to sit on this stool, he quickly disappears thereby making the old lady fall. This old lady then becomes the laughing stock for her friends who have come over for a party even though the lady has to suffer a lot of pain. Peter Quince derives his names from the Greek and Norman French words for Rocky Cornerstone and represents Saint Peter. The main characters in the program of the Mechanicals entertainment, Pyramus and Thisbe, have been taken from the story of Ovid. This story is well known for its allegorical interpretation of Jesus and the Church. In the story by Ovid, Jesus dies for the sake of the Church. Along similar lines, in the story of Pyramus and Thisbe, Pyramus also dies for the love of Thisbe. The play is a religious satire, using Biblical typology, and involving figures from first-century Judea. Next in the allegorical plot, the Partition (which can be seen as being symbolized by the Wall) between Heaven and Earth falls down, bringing about the day of Apocalypse on which Jesus and the Church will be reunited. Saint Peter (being represented by Quince) directs his comic play; but in this Apocalypse, the Church (being represented by Thisbe) dies. Jesus (Bottom/Pyramus) is crucified again. The Shakespearean plays were influenced by Marlowe and have been known to contain parodies of Christian doctrine, such as comic satires of the Virgin Mary. A chief narrative in the play is that of Oberon and Titania who are fighting over a young, attendant who is an Indian boy. The mother of this boy, who Titania claims was her friend, is a Vofress (holy virgin). Moreover, Titania crowns him with flowers. This is an absurd proposition. The term Vot'ress means a woman consecrated by a vow to the religious life, especially referring to virgins, who do not have children. However, one exception to this rule was the Virgin Mary; whose son was also later crowned with thorns. The allegory here is that the Indian boy could be seen as a symbolic Jesus.

      Titania in love with Bottom: Titania falls in love with Bottom who has a donkey's head on his shoulders. This situation arises because Puck has been instructed by Oberon to squeeze the juice of a magical flower on the eyelids of Titania. This makes Titania to fall in love with the first living creature she sees, which happens to be Bottom. Although superficially it seems that this situation is only consequential to the extent of adding comedy to the play, a closer analysis reveals that even this incident has a deep allegorical significance. The donkey's head on Bottom's shoulders signifies a tussle between reason and irrationality. It can also be understood as a tussle between the carnal man, guided by immediate desire and its fulfillment and the spiritual man, guided by reason and maturity.

      Conclusively, it can be said that Shakespeare's play, A Midsummer Night's Dream is a comedy but does not lose its flavor of complexity which Shakespeare is known for. Through the story involving the main plot and the sub plot, we realize that Shakespeare has overtly and implicitly given religious undertones to the story. It can be said that the story can be interpreted in allegorical terms.

University Questions

Do you agree that A Midsummer Night's Dream is symbolic in its meaning? Substantiate.
Comment on the use of Allegorical Symbolism in A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Do you think that A Midsummer Night's Dream can be interpreted in allegorical terms?

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