Imagination in Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream", Act 5 / Scene 1

Term Paper, 2010
18 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of contents

1 Introduction

2 The Act 5 / Scene 1 in the context of the plot and the play’s characters

3 The play within the play’s emphasis on imagination
3.1 Forms and functions of the play within the play
3.2 The play of “Pyramus and Thisbe”
3.2.1 The reflection of the main plot
3.2.2 The craftsmen’s performance and its influence on questions of imagination

4 Selected characters and their contribution to questions of imagination
4.1 Theseus’ and Hippolyta’s controversy about imagination
4.2 Puck’s epilogue

5 Conclusion


1 Introduction

The “dream” in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” implies a world of imagination, illusion and unconsciousness. In addition, the tradition and the popular beliefs of the midsummer festivals describe a time of unleashed natural forces (BOOCK, 1981: 70). The audience of the play indeed witnesses magical incidents in the fairies’ forest, where the fairy king and queen, Oberon and Titania, rule over the natural processes. Human beings seem to behave irrationally under the spell of these fairies and in the surrounding of this magic forest (SHAKESPEARE, 1980: II - IV).

However, in contrast, the city of Athens is dominated by the rational Theseus, duke of Athens, who only believes in what cool reason is able to produce and to understand (SHAKESPEARE, 1980: V, i, 2 - 22).

The contrast of imagination and reason represents one of the major oppositional pairs of themes of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (KERRIGAN, 1998: 20ff). It becomes indirectly clear through the opposing worlds of forest and city and the ongoing actions in these two places. Furthermore, in the last scene of the play, the audience experiences directly a controversy between Theseus and his wife, Hippolyta, concerning the truth of the story about the incidents in the forest happened to the young Athenians Hermia, Helena, Lysander and Demetrius. Consequently, it is also a controversy about the value of imagination and reason (SHAKESPEARE, 1980: V, i, 1 - 27).

Moreover, questions of imagination are brought up on another level. The play within the play of “Pyramus and Thisbe”, which is rehearsed by craftsmen throughout the story and performed at the wedding ceremony in the last scene, offers an increase of imaginative perspectives. Its content not only mirrors the main plot, but it also emphasises the role auf the audience in the imaginative process (DENT, 1964: 127 and PFISTER, 2000: 408 and WILLSON, 1981: 88 and WILLSON, 1974: 102ff and ZIPFEL, 2007: 212).

These aspects will be discussed further in this research paper. As the title suggests, the focus is on the very last scene of the play. Nevertheless, it is also necessary to establish connections to other parts of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”,

because no scene can be examined in an isolated form. Especially in the case of the last scene, the reflection of the main actions by the play within the play results in references to several plot lines.

2 The Act 5 / Scene 1 in the context of the plot and the play’s characters

Although the climax of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” reaches its conclusion in the second scene of the third act, when Hermia, Lysander, Helena and Demetrius go through the confusion of their love relationships (SHAKESPEARE, 1980: III, ii and KERRIGAN, 1998: 20), the very last scene of the play has its specific function as well. The multiple plot lines (WILLSON, 1974: 102) are combined and concluded in this final part of the play.

In this regard, the wedding ceremony of Theseus and Hippolyta represents a golden thread for the plot of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (PFISTER, 2000: 406). Hermia’s decision about her future as either being married to Demetrius, sent to a cloister or sentenced to death if she still insists on her love to Lysander has to be made until that day (SHAKESPEARE, 1980: I, i, 83 - 90). The craftsmen rehearse their play only to be performed at the wedding reception of Theseus and Hippolyta (SHAKESPEARE, 1980: I, ii; III, i; IV, ii). Even the dispute between the Fairy King and Queen, Oberon and Titania, plays a role as both accuse themselves to be involved in liaisons with Hippolyta respectively Theseus (SHAKESPEARE, 1980: II, i, 68 - 81). In addition, they eventually bless the wedding couples and their offspring (SHAKESPEARE, 1980: V, i, 390 - 411). (PFIS- TER, 2000: 406) Finally, the confused love relationships between the young Athenians are concluded with the marriage of Hermia and Lysander and Helena and Demetrius (SHAKESPEARE, 1980: IV, ii, 15 - 16). Here, Shakespeare used the triple marriage as one of the typical elements of a comedy and as a symbol of fertility (BAUMBACH and NÜNNING, 2009: 31).

Moreover, the last scene of the play is a crucial part of the threepart structure of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. The characters start their journey in Athens, immerge into the mythical forest and return to Athens at the end. Athens and the forest represent two opposing worlds. Whereas the city is influenced by the clear and male reason of Theseus and is characterised by consciousness and order, the forest embodies fantasy, dreams, unconsciousness and disorder. (PFISTER, 2000: 407 and KERRIGAN, 1998: 20ff)

BONNARD states that, with respect to this structure, the play begins with the theme of reason and also ends with it. According to his notion, the romantic, and therefore irrational, love, disappeared from the relation of Lysander and Hermia as man and wife and also Demetrius had been cured from his delusion. “They have become sensible creatures as Theseus and Hippolyta were from the first. Reality has triumphed over unreality, the world of facts over the world of dreams.” (BONNARD, 1956: 278f) However, the question whether the reasonable world is indeed predominant at the end of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” will be examined in the following chapters.

3 The play within the play’s emphasis on imagination

3.1 Forms and Functions of the play within the play

The play within the play represents one of several forms of metadrama which, in general, refers to its own fiction and illusion by presenting this self-reference as content of the play (KRIEGER, 2004: 446f). One can state that the form of the play within the play is existent, when the characters find themselves in the roles of an audience or of actors. This is realised, for instance, by the presentation of the rehearsal or the performance of a play. So, the actual play is delivered simultaneously or consecutively on different levels which results in an increase of the play’s fiction and its inherent perspectives. (KRIEGER, 2004: 446f and MEHL, 1961: 135)

The technique of the play within the play has especially prospered in times when “dramatists experimented with established forms, and (…) when the purpose and function of drama and its illusionary character were subject for searching discussion” (MEHL, 1965: 42). This had also been the case in the Elizabethan period, in which, however, this form had been developed only by and by. In the early forms, the relationship between the two levels of the play were still clearly out-

lined and transparent, whereas the connection of inner and outer play became more unclear and interwoven in the late dramas by playwrights, such as Shakespeare, Marston, Webster or Middleton. (MEHL, 1961: 150)

MEHL assigns “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” to the more simple forms of the play within the play. The play of “Pyramus and Thisbe” is, on the one hand, connected to the main plot by several parallel actions. However, it stays on top of the main action and both levels do not merge. The play of the craftsmen is clearly separated from the aristocratic and courtly world. Consequently, the border between performance and reality is kept evident. (MEHL, 1961: 142) Nevertheless, the following chapters will show that questions of imagination can be extensively focused on even with such a clear distinction.

Overall, the play within the play fulfils several functions, which are also often connected to each other. ZIPFEL distinguishes between two groups of functions: the immanent functions and the transcendent functions. The former relate to the relationships between the plots of the inner and the outer play. For instance, the focus can be on the catalytic function which results in the advancement of the outer play’s plot by the inner play’s plot. Furthermore, the function of the inner play to conclude the plot of the outer play or to resolve its conflict is possible, too. Another immanent function is the creation of a particular atmosphere with the help of the inner play. (ZIPFEL, 2007: 204)

Transcendent functions apply to the total structure of the play within the play. Having a meta-dramatic and meta-aesthetic potential, the play within the play often reflects the technical, social and political preconditions and practices of production. Moreover, the philosophical function refers to questions of distinction between fiction, illusion and reality in general. The response-centred function concerns the influence of the reaction of the inner play’s audience on the real play’s audience. Possible effects are the identification with the inner play’s audience and consequently the transfer of its reception or the rebellion against this way of looking at the inner play. Finally, the perspectival function concerns the potential of the play within the play to give information about a particular story element or conflict by presenting different points of view. (ZIPFEL, 2007: 205)

3.2 The play of “Pyramus and Thisbe”

3.2.1 The reflection of the main plot

It is assumed that “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” was written by Shakespeare around 1595 or 1596, as it is the case with the play “Romeo and Juliet” (SCHLÖSSER, 1977: 495). There are obvious similarities in the stories of “Romeo and Juliet” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream’s” play within the play, called “The most Lamentable Comedy and most Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisbe”1 (SHAKESPEARE, 1980: I, ii, 10). Two young lovers, whose parents forbid them to come together, die because of fatal misunderstandings (SIEGEL, 1953: 142 and ZIPFEL, 2007: 212).

The title of the play within the play already indicates the combination of tragic and comical elements (ZIPFEL, 2007: 212). It is possible that, given the parallels to “Romeo and Juliet”, Shakespeare intended to experiment with the aesthetic conventions of tragedy and comedy and wanted to explore the boundaries between these two genres (WILLSON, 1981: 85). In this regard, the audience of the inner play as well the theatrical audience can observe, that the tragic elements of “Pyramus and Thisbe” originate from the plot itself. The comical elements are caused by the craftsmen’s performance (ZIPFEL, 2007: 212), which will be discussed in chapter 3.2.2.

Nevertheless, it is important to note that the tragedy is not only limited to the fate of the two characters Pyramus and Thisbe. Regarding the given functions of the play within the play in general (see chapter 3.1), one of the main purposes of “Pyramus and Thisbe” is the reflection of the tragic main plot around the four lovers, Hermia, Lysander, Helena and Demetrius. Like Pyramus and Thisbe, Lysander and Hermia cannot come together until the end of the play. Thus, the play within the play serves as an anticlimax. (PFISTER, 2000: 408 and WILLSON, 1981: 88 and WILLSON, 1974: 102ff and ZIPFEL, 2007: 212)

In addition, “Pyramus and Thisbe” offers some new perspectives on the main plot. Through the inability of the craftsmen to deliver the play in an adequate way and their farce-like performance, the play within the play underscores the absurdity of the young Athenian’s love quarrels and the foolishness of human beings to misunderstand themselves and what is happening to them. Like Bottom and his colleagues, also the lovers acted badly. Demetrius’ praise “O Helen, goddess, nymph, perfect, divine! To what, my love, shall I compare thine eyne? Chrystal is muddy. O, how ripe in show Thy lips, those kissing cherries, tempting grow! (…)” (SHAKESPEARE, 1980: III, ii, 137 - 144) could have also been uttered by the exaggeratedly acting Bottom speaking to his character’s love Thisbe. Hermia and Helena risk their friendship (SHAKESPEARE, 1980: III, ii, 198 - 219) and the swordfight of Lysander and Demetrius (SHAKESPEARE, 1980: III, ii, 401 - 430) resembles the antics of the craftsmen’s performance. (WILLSON, 1974: 104 and WILLSON, 1981: 88 and BERRY, 2002: 131)

However, the young Athenians are not capable of recognising and reflecting their own behaviour. Instead, they mock at the craftsmen’s bad play (SHAKE- SPEARE, V, i, 119 - 121, 151 - 152, 165 - 166, 206 - 207, 224 - 226, …) This

shows again their own lack of self-knowledge. (BERRY, 2002: 131 and WILL- SON, 1981: 88)

The play within the play concentrates here on the function of “laughing us out of our illusions about ourselves as lovers and madmen” (WILLSON, 1974: 102).

3.2.2 The craftsmen’s performance and its influence on questions of imagination

The craftsmen, Quince, Bottom, Flute, Snout, Starvelling and Snug, represent the lower extreme of the social scale compared to the courtly society whose wedding ceremony is supposed to be the place of performance for their rehearsed play (BONNARD, 1956: 273). Among other things, this contrast is stressed by the character’s language throughout the whole play. Whereas their social superiors speak in unrhymed or rhymed verse2 and use a sensitive imagery, the mechanicals employ prose. Bottom, as the main character of the craftsmen’s cast, likes big words, but is not aware of their correct use and exact.


1 For reasons of limited space and conciseness the short form of the play, “Pyramus and Thisbe“, is used in this research paper.

2 The standard verse form is the unrhymed iambic pentameter in which there are five pairs of syllables in a line with stress on the second syllable. Nevertheless, Shakespeare also plays with this basic rhythm for reasons of variety or emphasis. (KERRIGAN, 1998: xii and KULLMANN, 2005: 60)

Excerpt out of 18 pages


Imagination in Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream", Act 5 / Scene 1
University of Erfurt  (Philosophische Fakultät)
Shakespearean Comedy
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ISBN (Book)
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William Shakespeare, Shakespeare, Literatur, literature, comedy, Komödie, imagination, drama, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Ein Sommernachtstraum, Sommernachtstraum, Theater, Akt 5, Act 5
Quote paper
Anonymous, 2010, Imagination in Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream", Act 5 / Scene 1, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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