Imagery in The Play A Midsummer Night's Dream

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      Context of the play: The atmosphere and context of this play is surreal and fantastical. It is also romantic in nature and sets the tone of the play. The play is often categorized into the genre of a romantic comedy. The chief reason of considering this play to have romance is not just the love story of various characters but also the setting and the atmosphere created in the play, which is overtly romantic. The fantastical atmosphere in the play is mainly created due to the introduction of the fairy world. Shakespeare introduces an elaborate fairy world with Oberon and Titania as their king and queen respectively. They are supernatural beings and engage in tasks which are not fathomable to the mortal world. Puck plays pranks on the human world and employs magic to create amusement. This amusement is heightened as the fairies are invisible to the human eyes. The various incidents which are significant to the development of the plot of the play happen as a result of magic. Bottom starts looking like a donkey; Titania falls in love with him. This is all possible due to the intervention of magic.

      Night as a leitmotif: In A Midsummer Night's Dream, William Shakespeare excellently uses the night as a leitmotif which plays a significant role in the play. He combines this motif with other associated symbols of the play to demonstrate the power of night and its correlation with love and vision. He uses symbolism and imagery to further develop the motif and makes extensive use of the night forest which, in part, helps the situation of the four young lovers, one of the main plots of the play. Initially, it seems absurd that Shakespeare would use the forest as the main setting of the play. However, a forest in the city of Athens, especially at the darkest hour of the night symbolizes wilderness, uncharted territory and unknown dangers. It is also remarkable that the forest is the only setting where all the characters, from the mortal world, and from the immortal world converge. We also see various characters being afraid of the darkness. Helena is especially scared of the all-pervading darkness in the forest and does not want Demetrius to leave her side. Demetrius, on the other hand, is agitated with Helena and leaves her to be "attacked by wild beasts". Also there is confusion as long as there is night time in the forest. It is with the approaching of the morning that the lovers are reunited and happiness eventually prevails. The night symbolizes darkness and to an extent, a state of blindness. It symbolizes mischief and madness, fairies and magic. The night forest provides a setting for dangerous and daring acts such as Hermia and Lysander's plan to escape Athens and the Athenian law to finally get married. The lovers plan to execute their plan and meet at "deep midnight" (Act I, Scene 1). This is also to conceal themselves from the world as they are engaging in an otherwise "socially unacceptable act".

      Shakespeare also uses other images typically associated with the night so as to heighten the use of night as a leitmotif. He refers to Phoebe, or Diana, who is the Roman goddess of the moon and also of transformation, especially the unobserved and mysterious ones in the darkness. "Tomorrow night, when Phoebe doth behold/ her silver visage in the watery glass . . ." (Act I, Scene 1). In the play, day symbolizes light and knowledge, reality and happiness. The morning symbolizes a sense of renewal and new beginnings. All four lovers end up wishing for daylight at the end of Act III, Scene 2: "Come, thou gentle day" O weary night, O long and tedious night,/ Abate thy hours, shine comforts from the east" (Act III, Scene 2). The sun finally rises with the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta and the union of the other lovers symbolizing an end to their tribulations and birth of a renewed energy.

      The moon, which has been said all throughout the play to influence human behavior, is the only source of light at night which allows the lovers the see each other. Shakespeare associates the moon with love. In the opening scene of the play, Theseus is excited to get married to Hippolyta and cannot get married to her. He complains about the weary night saying "Four happy days bring in / another moon: but O, methinks how slow / This old moon wanes! She lingers my desires / Like to a step-dame" (Act 1, Scene 1). Shakespeare also compares the moon to a bow, and Cupid, the Roman god of love, carries a bow to shoot arrows of love. "And then the moon, like to a silver bow / New bent in heaven, shall behold the night / Of our solemnities" (Act I, Scene 1). Therefore the moon has also been used to intensify the effect of the night.

      Shakespeare's plays were usually performed by daylight, and he had to create the idea of darkness or half-light in the imagination of his audience where there was not a possibility of any lights to turn off or to dim. In addition, these repeated moon references work upon the audience by creating a dreamlike atmosphere. Familiar things look different by moonlight; they are seen quite literally in a different light.

      The moon is also a reminder of the continuous flux of time, and that all things like the phases of the moon must change. The more erudite people in Shakespeare's audience would have also understood the mythological significance of the moon. The moon-goddesses Luna and Diana were associated with chastity on the one hand and fertility on the other; two qualities that are united in faithful marriage, which the play acknowledges and appreciates. The moon in A Midsummer Night's Dream is not only a shining and passive observer in the night sky; but it is a powerful force. It has an intoxicating effect on all the characters and seems to evoke absurd and illicit behavior. The theme of dreaming is prominent, and the moon is connected with this, as is the darkness of night, under the cover of which, anything can happen and, as the play progresses; there is a blurred line between the illusory world and the real world in A Midsummer Night's Dream. It is truly fascinating that many of the major themes in the play; such as dreaming, confusion, love and marriage can all be traced to the presence of the moon.

      Animal imagery: Images from the animal world also appear many times in the play, reminding us of the wildness of the forests, the setting where the majority of the play’s action takes place, where an unaccompanied female would be at "the mercy of wild beasts" in a setting where "the wolf behowls the moon." But this is a comedy; these dangers are not to be perceived as threatening or intimidating in nature. The animal references are conventional. The only animals which the audience encounters in the play are the lion played by Snug and the half donkey which Bottom transforms into. The animal references are included in the many images of the natural world that are associated with the fairy kingdom.

      Visions versus reality: The dream or visions which have been eventually associated with the night, serve as an important symbol from the title of the play onwards. The dream and introspective vision are made possible by night and darkness, meaning that the visions can be seen or experienced only when it is night time. In Act IV Scene 1, Demetrius comments on the permeability of the barrier between night and day, and the ability of night visions to carry over into the daylight hours. "Are you sure / That we are awake? It seems to me/ That yet we sleep, we dream" (Act IV Scene 1). In daylight, the four lovers go on to recount their dreams together, struggling to make sense of the night through the framework of the dream. "And by the way let us recount our dreams." (Act IV, Scene 1)

University Questions

Write an expository and explanatory note on the symbolism and imagery used in A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Describe the significance of symbolism and imagery in A Midsummer Night's Dream.

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