A Midsummer Night's Dream Characterization

Instructor: Karen Wolak

Karen has taught 4-8th grade English/Language Arts and has worked closely with adult learners for several years. M.Ed. in Adult Education.

Characterization is a very important part of William Shakespeare's 'A Midsummer Night's Dream.' Let's study how characterization works alongside the setting, plot and theme to create meaning in the play.


William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream is full of interesting characters. There's magical fairies, including one that stirs up quite a bit of trouble. Then there's Bottom, who is transformed to have the head of a donkey. Characters such as these make a story memorable.

Characters are more than just actors in a story. Characterization refers to how an author designs or constructs a character in a written work. Characterization works with other elements of the story, such as the setting, plot and theme, to create depth and meaning. Let's take a closer look at A Midsummer Night's Dream, and how Shakespeare uses characterization in coordination with the other elements of the story.

Characterization and Setting

Setting refers to the time and place in which a story occurs. Setting can influence characterization because setting gives context to how a character should act. A Midsummer Night's Dream is set in ancient Athens, a patriarchal society, or a society that places men in positions of authority. Therefore, we can expect that the male characters are depicted as having influence or power. Egeus, for example, wants his daughter to marry Demetrius. We learn through his character that the law of Athens grants him this power. While modern readers may be surprised by his control over his daughter, his characterization fits within the setting of the story.

Ancient Athens is a patriarchal society.
Ancient Athens

The characterization of Demetrius also reinforces how a patriarchal society might influence a male character. Demetrius essentially dumped Helena, his lover and fiancé, to pursue a relationship with Hermia. Helena doesn't seem to have done anything wrong - Demetrius just preferred to go after someone else. Furthermore, he continued to pursue Hermia even though Hermia is very clear that she is not interested in him. When someone reports his behavior to Theseus, Duke of Athens, Theseus confirms that he has heard this about Demetrius. However, he admits he hasn't considered it a significant problem. Men like Demetrius were expected to pursue women and be the dominant voice in relationships with women.

Characterization and Plot

Plot refers to the action and sequence of events in a story. Characterization and plot are closely connected because the psychology, history and motives behind characters often influence how they act. This in turn moves along the action in a story.

In A Midsummer Night's Dream, much of the plot is driven through the characterization of Helena and Hermia. Both women are faced with conflict. Hermia is being forced into a marriage, and Helena has been unceremoniously discarded by Demetrius. The setting of the story suggests that these women are expected to fall in line with the wishes of the male characters. However, both characters are constructed to be bold and fight for what they want. Hermia defies her father's wishes and runs away with Lysander. Helena continues to pursue Demetrius, trying to win him back. Their actions drive the sequence of events that lead to the events in the woods. Had they conformed with society's expectations of them, most the play would not have occurred.

Characterization and Theme

Are you noticing a pattern? There seems to be a lot of conflict in A Midsummer Night's Dream between men and women. Gender roles - particularly in relationships - is one of the themes of the play. A theme in a written work refers to a recurring idea in the text. Because so many characters exemplify this theme, we can say that the characterization in the play supports the theme.

Themes often contribute to the message an author is trying to convey to a written work. So why would Shakespeare want to show us examples of male power and the oppression of women? Is he a woman-hater?

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