A dream researcher friend asked if knew anything about the role of dreams in Shakespeare’s romantic comedy “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” since she could not find any good info on the web. Here’s my response, which she suggested I post:
One way to think of this play is as a commentary on the glorious folly of love. Shakespeare is saying that love is like a dream—it radically changes our perception of reality and other people, it compels us to behave in ways that are foolish and irrational, it’s wild and magical and unpredictable, and it ultimately must yield to the sovereignty of the waking social order (as the end of the play makes clear).
After Bottom has returned from donkey to human status he says some funny things about how crazy and unbelievable dreams are, which is extra amusing and paradoxical because we in the audience have just seen that his “dream” of being an ass was indeed real (IV.ii.203-222).
One of the young lovers, Hermia, has an alarming dream about her beloved Lysander smiling cruelly while a serpent bites her breast (II.ii.144-150). Her dream turns out to be an accurate “threat simulation” reflecting Lysander’s sudden change of heart towards her.
When all the lovers awaken toward the end, they marvel at their strange nocturnal experiences, and say some nice things about sharing dreams with each other (IV.ii.189-202).
Add to this the fact that the play was originally intended to be performed on midsummer’s night, traditionally a “dreamy” celebration of the shortest night of the year, when people stay up and carouse about till dawn.
And in the final lines of the play, the mischievous Puck asks the audience to pretend they’ve been asleep the whole time, dreaming the spectacle before them (V.i.429-430).
All in all, it’s a play that emphasizes the powerful emotional truth of dreaming and the energizing tension between dream desire and waking structure.
Thanks to Justina Lasley of the Institute for Dream Studies!