The word “fantasy” has a fairly obvious connection to A Midsummer Night’s Dream; fairies, magical juice from a flower, a human with a donkey head. But if the play is examined through the lens of the word “fantasy” not in terms of the supernatural, but for how perception relates to reality, then the use of the word “fantasy” may shine a new light on the play.
Given the supernatural aspects of the play, the reader may be inclined to understand the word to mean “a delusive imagination, hallucination,” but the use of “fantasy” in the context of MSND does not seem consistent with this definition. In the three instances in which the words “fantasy” of “fantasies,” are used the word does not apply to the supernatural elements of the play, but rather to the ways love impacts the character’s perception.
The first time the word “fantasy” is used is in Act I Scene i Lines 30-32 “Thou hast by moonlight at her window sung/ with feigning voice verses of feigning love/ And stol’n the impression of her fantasy.” Egeus is accusing Lysander of purposefully misleading Hermia, convincing her that he loves her when he does not. In this instance the definition that seems most appropriate is “Mental apprehension of an object of perception,” placing more emphasis on the mental perception of reality, than on the mind creating things that do not exist. For instance, Egeus insisting that Hermia’s love for Lysander has caused her to misperceive reality, and insinuating that that is why she is disobeying him.
The second use of the word “fantasies” comes in Act II Scene i, Lines 257-258 “And with the juice of this I’ll streak her eyes/ And make her full of hateful fantasies.” Though the characters are fairies, the “fantasies” being discussed are not necessarily supernatural but rather a departure from reality as established by the second definition of “fantasy.” Oberon intends to manipulate Titania, to make her feel emotions that are not her own. Controlling the “fantasies” of Titania is a way of controlling her, similar to what Egeus accused Lysander of doing to persuade Hermia. The “fantasies,” as a result of love, whether real or magically induced, may be a commentary about how love affects people. To use the word fantasy to describe how love’s affects is a bold statement; that love is not only a strong emotion, but can literally change the way those experiencing it perceive the world.
The third, and last, use of “fantasies” supports the idea that love is being portrayed as the cause of these misperceptions of reality. In Act V Scene i Lines 4-11, “Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,/ Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend/ More than cool reason ever comprehends,” Theseus is commenting on the stories the lovers are telling about their night in the forest. Theseus expands upon why he believes the lovers have such fantasies: “The lunatic, the lover and the poet/ Are of imagination all compact/… The lover, all as frantic,/ sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt.” The footnote indicates that Theseus mean lovers will see “female perfection” a traditionally greek attribute “in the face of a gypsy.” Theseus makes the same point that Shakespeare seems to be making by linking love and “fantasy.”
A consideration in the understanding of the word “fantasy,” may be the theme in MSND of highlighting the abuses of patriarchal control over female sovereignty. In the first two uses of the word fantasy a male figure is determining what is reality and what is a woman’s fantasy. That a man gets to define what is reality is interesting to note in that it may add another layer to the commentary being made about patriarchal society.
There is an additional definition that may apply to the larger context of the play, “caprice, changeful mood, an instance of this….” To read “fantasy” using this definition, could dovetail nicely with the sudden change in the characters brought on with the magical juice. Love causing a drastic change in the characters would introduce another way to think about how Shakespeare is portraying love. Keeping in mind both definitions, fantasy as a misperception of reality and fantasy as a sudden change, may help inform how the word “fantasy” is meant to be understood, and what this means for Shakespeare’s portrayal of love and reality.