A speculative religious reading of A Midsummer Night’s Dream:
In a way that is all but straightforward, Shakespeare weaves repeated invocations of serpentine imagery, delineates characters on gendered lines, and overlays a driving tension between fate and free will. Accidental or intended, these features invite a connection of A Midsummer Night’s Dream to foundational Christian theology, specifically to the story of Genesis.
The fateful condemnation in Genesis comes when Eve, victim to the temptation of the snake, compels Adam to eat the apple of knowledge: “Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked.” Privy to the nature of good and evil, Adam and Eve are compelled to a new self-conscious morality. Peace, the harmonious being of man, is corrupted by licentious female weakness and complicated as free will emerges amidst the unprecedented opportunity for moral choice.
As for Adam and Eve, in Dream the serpent cues the alarm. Shakespeare explicitly includes the serpent in Hermia’s dream. Waking in the forest, she calls out to deaf ears:
Help me, Lysander, help me; do thy best
To pluck this crawling serpent from my breast.
Ay me, for pity! What a dream was here!
Lysander, look how I do quake with fear.
Methought a serpent eat my heart away,
And you sat smiling at his cruel pray. (II. 2, bold mine)
A revelatory vision, the dream foreshadows Hermia’s desertion by Lysander which, unbeknownst to her, has just happened. The night before Lysander promised to “end life when I end loyalty,” yet now he ascribes his oaths to “heresy” (twice repeated) and chases ferociously after Helena, the new object of his affections (II.2). What strange magic propelled this incredible — and wicked— transformation?
As the fairy king Oberon explains, the magic juice works through the eyes, subjecting its recipient to “madly dote/Upon the next live creature that it sees” (II. I). The content of the external world, as in the condition of Adam and Eve, does not change, only its internal interpretation and elicited reaction.
Tragically deluded, Lysander ironically attributes his re-assigned love to a matured rationality: “I, being young, till now ripe not to reason;” now, he believes, “Reason becomes the marshal to my will” (II.2, italics mine). The language of ripening reason (hint: fruit of Eden), advanced concurrent to a comic assessment of free will, substantiates a biblical analysis. Fruit imagery emerges again as Oberon corrects Puck’s mistake, directing magical powers toward Demetrius: to “sink in apple of his eye” a love for Helena (III.2). When Oberon corrects the mischief done, he renders the night a dream: “When they next wake, all this derision/Shall seem a dream and fruitless vision” (III.2).
Religion is by no means an arbitrary point of analysis for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Written at the turn of the seventeenth century, the play is embedded in a historical period of heightened religious anxiety, propelled by the volatile rebounding of Protestantism and Catholicism. Confronted with institutional instability in monarchy and church, Shakespeare’s England was vulnerable to social anomie, surrendering the past, present and future to tumultuous confusion.
Approached in comedy, the consuming seriousness of existential anxieties concomitant to the weakened moral authority of the church are denied their social saliency. The theological connections are compelling, though Shakespeare prompts his audience to different conclusions. Rendering absolutist oaths an absurdity, mystifying free-will, and challenging the theological crux of blame with women, A Midsummer’s Night Dream dramatizes the ironies that invade all our lives.