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Day & Night in A Midsummer Night's Dream

Instructor: Arielle Windham

Arielle has worked worked with elementary, middle, and secondary students in American and Japan. She has a bachelor's degree in English and a master's in Education.

Through the magic of modern movies, the audience is made keenly aware of the impact day and night have on certain scenes in Shakespeare's 'A Midsummer Night's Dream.' But even before theatrics advanced enough to bring sun and moon to the stage, these opposing times were more than just a play of light. This lesson will explore how day and night help us understand the deeper meaning of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream.'

Time of Day in A Midsummer Night's Dream

When you're reading a play, it's easy to overlook how important setting can be. Plays are meant to be watched, right? When you're watching, things like the time of day are easy to recognize and blend seamlessly into your understanding of the play's themes. It's when we read a play that we need to think harder about setting, time of day in this case. We must ask ourselves, ''how does it help me understand the deeper meaning?''

If you want the simple answer, here it is. Day represents the human world and night the fairy realm. Puck even says in Act 3, Scene 2, that fairies, ghosts, and ''damned spirits all. . . willfully exile themselves from light.''

There's nothing tricky about that. But is Shakespeare ever that simple?

Night and Day
night

So what's the complex answer?

At its core, A Midsummer Night's Dream is a play about how perception relates to truth. Did you catch all the references to eyes and seeing? Shakespeare wants us to questions whether our eyes tell the truth, or if truth is only revealed when we're blind? Well, you have to have light to see, don't you? The opposition between night and day is another device to explore this theme.

Go back to our simple answer, and let's take things a step further. By comparing day and night scenes, can we figure out Shakespeare's thoughts on truth and perception?

Daytime Scenes

Two of the play's acts take place during the day, Act 1 and Act 4. We have established that day represents the human realm, but if we look closely at these scenes, we find they represent a more philosophical realm as well - the realm of law and order.

In Act 1, this is pretty straight forward. The major conflict revolves around the Athenian law that says a girl must obey her father or die. This makes a clear connection between daytime, man, and law. Even the actors in Scene 2, all tradesmen, help align daytime with law and order. They have day jobs, vital to Athenian society, and acting is just a hobby, something to be done at night after work.

Tradesmen playing Actors
actors

The only true loves of the play are also revealed in this act. Theseus and Hippolyta and Hermia and Lysander have fallen in love without out any enchantment.

Act 4 takes place the morning after a chaotic night in the woods. Titania and Lysander's true sight returns when the enchantment is removed. Also, Theseus, the embodiment of law, returns to the stage. The human hunting party comes across the sleeping young lovers, and the fantastic 'dreams' of the night before are swept away by the daylight.

Discovery of the Lovers
lovers

In a way, these scenes end in a tie. In Act 1, the law is unfair to true love, but we see true love does exist in the light. In Act 4, the law and love are reconciled, and everyone is happy. However, this was only possible because of the strange events of the night before.

Nighttime Scenes

So, if daytime is the realm of law, then nighttime must be the realm not just of fairies, but also of chaos. It's a fun, harmless sort of chaos, but Oberon and Puck's mischief in Acts 2 and 3 definitely contrasts with Theseus's law and order.

Harmless Chaos
titania

At night, no one can see clearly. This results in humor and conflict of Acts 2 and 3 as characters blunder through the forest falling in and out of love. The true love of Lysander and Hermia is gone in the blink of an eye when he's bewitched by mistake. Titania is blind to reason and falls for the ass-headed Bottom. Demetrius is enchanted too. He and Lysander are bewildered by the darkness when Puck, trying to keep them from killing each other, leads them astray.

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