Comic Elements in A Midsummer Night's Dream

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      It is true to say that A Midsummer Night's Dream is a comedy play. Although its exact date of writing is uncertain, literary critics have suggested that it was written and performed in late 1595 or early 1596. This suggestion is based on the fact that there are allusions to Edward Spenser's Epithalamion in the play. Some critics have also gone to the extent of remarking that this play is an epitome of a typical Shakespearean comedy. The play is light-hearted and funny, the reasons of which will be discussed in detail. We also see a tinge of magic in the play through the characters of Oberon and Titania who are married to each other and are the king and queen of the fairyland. The prancing around of these fairies with their train of attendants, the singing and dancing, instances of magic and the misunderstanding caused due to the use of this magic are factors which work in consonance to lend elements of comedy to this particular play. The following points could serve as references for the sources of comedy in the play:

      Situational Comedy: By situational comedy, one refers to the comedy which arises due to typical situations which usually involve mixing of characters, misunderstanding and sometimes also elements of fantasy and magic. There are many situations in this play which lead to comedy and therefore, an evocation of laughter by the readers or the spectators. The first situation is that the meeting of the artisans. There are a group of artisans who are referred to as the "crude mechanicals from Athens". This very naming is indicative of the fact that there is some confusion and consequently laughter to follow. These crude mechanicals are involved in manual labor and therefore they have not exercised their intellectual faculties till now. They are preparing to perform a play for the occasion of the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta. Initially, they are unable to decide which character to be allotted to which actor. Bottom, the weaver is offered the role of Pyramus. He is keen to have an understanding of the character of Pyramus and therefore his first question is whether Pyramus is a lover or a tyrant. Even when he realizes that Pyramus is a lover, he still boastfully claims that he could have played the role of a tyrant well. Needless to say, he is engaging himself with immaterial and futile concerns. This is a source of comedy for the audience as he keeps proclaiming that he would have been such a good tyrant (played the role of a tyrant) that people would have been moved to tears. This is a comical incident as Bottom is daydreaming about an impossible situation as Pyramus is not a tyrant but a lover. When Quince talks about the role of Thisbe which he is asking Flute to play, Bottom immediately jumps in this conversation as well and requests to play the part of Thisbe as well. Bottom does not comprehend that he cannot play the roles of both the lover and the beloved. When the role of a lion is allotted to Snug, Bottom says that he can portray the role of a lion also. Bottom is quick to boast about his acting abilities which makes the audience wonder about his real acting prowess. Bottom also engages in malapropisms by mixing up words, replacing a correct word with an incorrect word. There are also other comic elements in the play; especially when the actors are rehearsing for their play. They create a prologue for the play, which is less like a prologue and functions more as an unfolding or giving away of the entire story. They tell the audience beforehand that the lion they see on stage is not a real lion. This is very humorous for the audience. Since they do not have any props, the organization of common day objects into various stage props is also absurd and comical. One actor plays the role of a wall. This actor carries some rough-cast to symbolize the wall. The absurdity of the actors, props and setting of the play acts as a source of comedy. The artisans seem ignorant of the sheer perfection and flawlessness a theatrical performance requires. Some literary critics suggest that Shakespeare showed this absurdity intentionally as he wanted to portray the unpolished theatrical techniques which were often used by theatrical companies of his time.

      Comedy due to elements of magic: There are also elements of magic in the play incorporated through the characters of Titania, Oberon and Puck. Puck is the chief attendant and also the jester of the king of fairies, Oberon. He plays pranks on everyone and since he employs magic, it creates many humorous situations. Puck transforms himself into various objects such as an apple, a fruit bowl or a stool causing misunderstanding among characters from the human world. Puck also puts the donkey's head on Bottom's shoulders. Bottom starts looking like a donkey and scares the other people without realizing that he is looking like a donkey; both literally and metaphorically. This again creates humor as there is a lot of confusion and meddling of situations. The situation is all the more funny because Bottom seems to be a character with an inflated ego. But in this situation, he seems to come across as a fool. Puck also enjoys this confusion which acts as a source of merriment for him. He also adds to the confusion by taking the shape of a horse, a headless bear or a hound scaring the already terrified people to a greater extent. Titania is also the subject of ridicule when she falls in love with a donkey. She adores this donkey and makes him the center of his world. This happens as Puck has squeezed the juice of a magical flower on her eyes. The depiction of a human in love with the most foolish of all animals, a donkey is the cause of comedy in the play.

      Irony: Humor is created in the play through irony as well. This is referred to as irony of situation. The biggest example of this situation is Puck's mistake. Oberon asks Puck to squeeze the juice of a magical flower on the eyelids of a "rustic wearing Athenian clothes". Puck squeezes this juice on the eyes of Lysander as he also looks like a rustic and is wearing Athenian clothes. He later also squeezes this juice on the eyes of Demetrius. Due to this duplication of action, an ironical situation is created. Both Lysander and Demetrius who were earlier in love with Hermia have now fallen in love with Helena. This topsy-turvy situation is created where the relationship of Helena and Hermia with Lysander and Demetrius is inverted. It is ironical that Helena who was initially shunned by all becomes the source of beauty and attraction for all. Helena is taken aback by this sudden appreciation. She accuses Demetrius and Lysander of ridiculing and mocking her. It is also ironical that Hermia is now being ridiculed by both Lysander and Demetrius who now perceive her to be ugly. Hermia is also called a cat, an Ethiopian, a tawny Tartar and a distasteful medicine. On the other hand, Helena is being compared to a nymph, a goddess and a divine creature.

      The Interlude: The Interlude is an extremely humorous part in the play as well. The Interlude also highlights the intricacies involved in the performance of any play. Quince is given the responsibility of
reading the Interlude aloud. However, he ignores the syntax, sentence formation and most importantly; punctuation marks in the speech. Consequentially the speech is rendered unintelligible to the audience and no one can make any sense of this speech. This Interlude is to a tragic love story of Pyramus and Thisbe but the messing up of the Interlude leads to comedy in the play.

      Both dramatic and situational irony combine and overlap to create comedy in the play. There is also the use of contrast to elevate the elements of comedy in the play. The world of fairies has been contrasted with the world of humans. The mechanicals have been contrasted with the world of nobles. It aims at giving a slice of reality by pointing at the follies of human nature. So in a way we are also laughing at ourselves.

      To conclude, we can say that A Midsummer Night's Dream is an exemplary comedy by Shakespeare. The concept of a play within a play, malapropisms, use of magic, irony and contrast are important elements of comedy in the play.

University Questions

Bring out the comic elements in A Midsummer Night's Dream.
What factors contribute to the comedy in A Midsummer Night's Dream?
A Midsummer Night's Dream is a comedy. Support your answers with examples.

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