The blending of reality and fantasy in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream leaves lingering questions about the relationship between reality and fantasy, reinforced by the shifting setting. The play opens in Athens, an important city and a hub of political power, but moves later to the woods where fairies live and cast spells on the unwitting Athenians, who return to a state of normalcy once they leave the woods. This shift in understanding reality comes from Shakespeare’s changing context of the word “fantasy” and “fancy” in the play.
In the opening scene, set somewhere in Athens, an all too familiar issue in plays about love unfolds: Hermia’s father appeals to Theseus to compel his daughter to abandon her love for the man he has chosen for her. Theseus suggests that she prepares herself to fit her “fancies” to her “father’s will” (I.1:117-118). Soon after Hermia and her love Lysander are left alone, she refers to him and herself as only “poor Fancy’s followers” (I.1:154-155). Love here is personified as an God or King or Queen who enslaves its followers, dooming them to a life lived outside the reasonable and rational confines of normal life.
As the play progresses, however, “fancy” is substituted for “fantasy” or “fantasie(s)”. As elements of transformation enter the play, such as the juice or dust from the pansy, the realistic elements of the play begin to fade into a more far-fetched plot. Fairies become the main driver of this love mix up between Lysander, Hermia, Helena and Demetrius, and Oberon plans to punish Titania by attempting to instill in her “hateful fantasies” (II.1:257-258) by making her fall in love with an animal or a beast which later becomes an altered version of Bottom – a rude mechanical whose head is transformed into that of an ass. The fairies and the magical elements in the poem add deeper fanciful elements to the play for it creates a shift from a woman’s simple “fancies” for a man to a world within the play where spells and potions can actually change and determine who a character loves. In the woods, there is no concrete reality like that of the Athenian governance from earlier in the play.
Once all of the lovers’ confusion is resolved and all characters can live, in the style of Shakespearean comedies, a “happily ever after ending,” two characters, Theseus and Hippolyta, think back on how strange it is that this quarrel, which in theory could have lead Hermia to her death, seemed to be resolved so easily. Theseus concludes that “such shaping fantasies that apprehend/ More than cool reason ever comprehends” (V.1:4-6) and Hippolyta points out that the entire situation seems “more witnesseth than fancy’s images” (V.1.25). Reality, they point out, is not the opposite of fantasy but is instead informed by it. People’s own imaginations and “fantasies” shape how they view reality.
The Oxford English Dictionary distinguishes between “phantasies” and “fantasies” which can be used synonymously but have, over time (and specifically Shakespeare’s time and beyond it), departed slightly in meaning. Phantasies generally refer more to the apparition or ghostly type of illusions while fantasies are often related to perception and imagination (www.oed.com). Shakespeare could have used either word when writing his play, but choose to exclusively use the latter, suggesting perhaps a set up for his own argument about the direct relation between man’s perceptions and the reality he claims to inhabit.
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