Understanding a Midsummer Night's Dream: A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents

By Faith Nostbakken | Go to book overview

5
Imagination and Beliefs:
Dreams, Fairies, and
Transformation

A Midsummer Night's Dream is a play about imagination. It describes a nighttime dream experience that its characters cannot absorb and understand by simple reason and common sense. It creates a kingdom of fairies, creatures who cannot be seen or heard by ordinary human senses. It portrays a supernatural experience of transformation where lovers touched by powers beyond their comprehension fall in love with those they hate and hate those with whom they fall in love. Transformation also touches a craftsman who suddenly wears the head of an ass, and when his human form returns he senses beyond the grasp of words that the experience has somehow changed him. The playwithin-the-play draws further attention to the relationship between imagination and art, and Shakespeare makes the role of imagination in his comedy all the more self-conscious by having his characters debate and discuss their views about the effects and limitations of the mind's eye. Theseus appears to see only the limitations and dismisses all “antique fables,” “fairy toys,” as the “tricks” of “strong imagination” (5.1.3,18). Hippolyta leaves room to believe what cannot be comprehended, suggesting that “fancy's images” of that midsummer night “grow to something of great constancy; °/ But, howsoever, strange and admirable” (5.1.25–27). Steeped as the play is in the power and confusion of imaginary worlds, it invites questions about how the imagination was perceived in Shakespeare's time, how those perceptions—reflected in ideas about dreams, fairies, and transformation—shape the boundaries of Shakespeare's play, and how Shakespeare's play in response sometimes challenges the boundaries of belief surrounding it.

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