ENGL 339: Shakespeare
Dr. Debora B. Schwartz
English Department, California Polytechnic State University

A Midsummer Night's Dream: Study Questions

1) Notice the ways in which Shakespeare uses language (prose, blank verse and rhyme) to differentiate between characters (i.e. fairies and mortals; nobility and rustics) or to create other effects (increased solemnity or silliness; poetic effects).

2) There are four plot levels in A Midsummer Night's Dream: the royal wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta; the story of the Athenian lovers, Lysander, Hermia, Demetrius, and Helena; the conflict between the fairies, Titania and Oberon (seconded by Puck); and the efforts of the "Rude Mechanicals," Bottom, Quince and company, to put on a play worthy of a royal wedding. Know characters (by name!) in each plot level, and be aware of the ways in which they (the characters and the plot levels) interact. How are they parallel or contrasted? What do the different plot levels have in common? (e.g. a movement from conflict to harmony; the theme of love triumphing over great odds). How does Shakespeare use these parallel plots (and characters) to unify the play as a whole?

3) Acts I and V take place in the "real" world of Athens (by day), Acts II, III and IV in a dream world, the woods outside the city (by night). Why does Shakespeare make use of the two settings? How can each be characterized? Do they serve any symbolic purpose? Who governs each world? What kinds of power are contrasted? Which is ultimately more powerful? (Does one have an effect on -- transform -- the other?)

4) The play begins with a forced marriage, fighting fairies, and thwarted lovers; it ends with a triple wedding and a newly reconciled pair of Fairy monarchs. In this movement from conflict to harmony, notice how marital/erotic love is used as a symbol of social harmony and concord. Note also the imagery of fertility (natural fecundity vs. blight, but also the implicit fertility of the couples who will be united in marriage.) What are Titania and Oberon fighting about at the beginning of the play? (What is the symbolic significance of the Changeling boy?)

5) The story of Pyramus and Thisbe is taken from Ovid's Metamorphoses, stories about magical transformations. What are some of the transformations in the play? Consider both literal transformations ("Bless thee, Bottom! thou art translated!" [III.i.119-120]) and figurative ones (between day and night, discord and harmony, reality and dream, unhappiness and bliss).

6) Trace the references to dreams and dreaming in the play. What do "dreams" represent? Who presides over the dream world (the forest at night)? What is the power of dreams? Can dreams have an effect on "reality"?

7) Characterize the fairies and their magic. To what extent do they represent natural forces (i.e. the power of nature?) What else might they represent? Notice that the fairies' magic takes place at night, and that it is several times compared to (or mistaken for) dreams. To what extent is their "magic" a double of the playwright's magic, making a "dream" come to life on the stage? In this regard, you may want to consider references to dreams and dreaming, to magic, and to poetry (e.g. Theseus's conversation with Hippolyta in V.1.1-27), as well as Puck's epilogue.

8) It is thought that A Midsummer Night's Dream was first written to be performed at a court wedding. Pyramus and Thisbe is a "play within a play" put on by the "Rude Mechanicals" to celebrate a royal wedding. In Act V, then, we are watching an audience watch a play that is like the play we are watching as an audience. What does this parallelism suggest? What function does the "play within a play" serve? (What is its dramatic significance and thematic relevance to the work as a whole?) Are there parallels between the stories of Pyramus and Thisbe and of the Athenian lovers? (Or with Romeo and Juliet, which dates from 1594-1596 -- the same years as A Midsummer Night's Dream?) In other words, are Bottom and company there only for comic relief, or do they convey a more serious message? If so, what?

Click here for A Midsummer Night's Dream Video Questions

Click here for As You Like It Study Guide

Click here for information on Comedy and on Shakespeare's Romantic Comedies

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