What’s in a Dream?

The title of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” suggests the act of dreaming, and what dreams mean will play a significant role in the play. However, the word “dream” only appears 14 times throughout the play and the only variation of it, “dreams,” appears just twice. So we must pay close attention to each use of the word and the context in which it is used to understand the significance of the title and perhaps find a deeper meaning to the entire play.

The word “dream” is used as both a noun and a verb in the play and defined using a relatively modern definition: a series of experiences occurring only in one’s mind while asleep. We understand what the word dream means, but the exact definition is not what is important in this case. I want to know the significance of dreams to Shakespeare’s characters. I want to understand the importance dreams may have had to Shakespeare and his audience in Elizabethan England.

Lysander uses the phrase, “short as any dream” (I.1.144). Hermia later exclaims, “What a dream was here!” (II.2.147). Both of these instances imply dreams and dreaming have a sort of temporal quality. Dreams are the feelings of experiences that have happened and have passed.

When Oberon, the King of the Fairies, prepares to undo the spell that made Lysander fall in love with Helena, he explains that, “When they next wake, all this derision/Shall seem a dream and fruitless vision” (III,2,371-2). Later, before Bottom wakes after having his head turned into the head of an ass by the Fairies, Oberon tells Titania and Puck that soon all of the Athenians will “think no more of this night’s accidents/But as the fierce vexation of a dream” (IV,1,68-9). Oberon intends to weaken the memories of the ones who were under spells by the fairies, but is he actually able to do this?

Bottom wakes to realize, “I have had a dream, past the wit of man to/ say what dream it was: man is but an ass, if he go/ about to expound this dream” (IV,1,203-5). He feels as if his dream is so distant and unfamiliar it is unknowable to man. After trying to explain to Theseus, Hippolyta, and Egeus the events of the precious night when Lysander and Demetrius both seemed to be in love with Helena, Demetrius says his memories of the experience “seem small and undistinguishable/ Like far-off mountains turned into clouds” (IV,1,186-7). Hermia shares that her memories of the previous evening feel as if she was seeing them “with parted eye/ When everything seems double” (IV,1,188-9). Clearly Oberon has the power to turn a memory of a true experience into merely a memory of a dream—something weaker and less complete.

The fairies play a significant role in creating dream like memories, or dreams themselves, so we should briefly explore the role of the fairies in the play. Puck claims, “I am that merry wanderer of the night” (II,1,44) describing his role to another fairy. Later when planning to reverse the spell that made Lysander fall in love with Helena, Puck tells Oberon, “My fairy lord, this must be done with haste/ For night’s swift dragons cut the clouds full fast” (III,2,378-9). We hear from Puck that the fairies act at night. This is not a surprise considering almost all of the fairies’ spells and mischief throughout the play have been carried out at night.

So we see that nighttime is when fairies act. And nighttime is also when we humans sleep and dream. Perhaps dreams are not actually formed at night, but are instead real experiences that the fairies have turned into faint memories (what we would call a dream) during the darkness of the night. Shakespeare is perhaps playing with the idea of supernatural or divine forces. Dreams are a common and shared experience among humans, but even with today’s modern science and technology our dreams remain mysterious. The thought of being controlled by another being or force is scary, so Shakespeare makes light of the idea of dreaming in this play. “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” lightheartedly offers the audience a meaning and significance to their own dreams and the phenomenon of dreaming.