Figurative Language in A Midsummer Night's Dream

Instructor: Krista Langlois

Krista has taught language arts for 14 years. She has a master's degree in teaching and loves researching, reading, and introducing others to the wonders of literature and language.

William Shakespeare was a master of the English language, and much of that mastery stemmed from his artful combination of words and phrases. In this lesson, we will explore Shakespeare's use of figurative language in ''A Midsummer Night's Dream.''

What Is Figurative Language?

Figurative language provides a plethora of ways to turn a phrase, describe, and create imagery through sensory words. Figurative language makes a text beautiful and interesting, maybe twisted and intriguing, and, for sure, not exactly what is says. It's the reader's job to ''figure'' it out! So, let's figure out how Shakespeare used figurative language in A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Page from 1623 folio
Front page shakespeare

Personification

Personification is using language to give life-like or human qualities to non-human things.

In Act 1, Shakespeare writes: ''Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind, and therefore is wing'd Cupid painted blind.'' In this quotation, love is being treated like an entity of action. Shakespeare personifies love by implying that love has eyes with which to see, and that love is blind as only a living being could be.

Later in Act 1, Shakespeare describes darkness as an entity with powerful maws with which to eat. But darkness does not have a mouth to eat or chew up anything! ''Brief as the lightning in the collied night, that, in a spleen, unfolds both heaven and earth, and ere a man hath power to say 'Behold!' The jaws of darkness do devour it up.'' By using personification, darkness becomes a beast to be feared, a destroyer of the light.

Imagery

Imagery is using language to paint a picture for the reader using sensory words. Imagery creates a visceral experience for readers, and allows them to build an image that incorporates elements of some or all of the five senses.

According to Shakespeare, hounds have mouths like bells.
braying hounds

Shakespeare creates vivid prose that speaks to the readers' sense of sight and smell. Close your eyes and listen as the players speak. You can see and smell your surroundings through his imagery: ''I know a bank where the wild thyme blows, where oxlips and the nodding violet grows, quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine, with sweet musk-roses and with eglantine.''

In Act 4, you can hear the perfectly pitched barks of the hounds, see their long, flopping ears sweep the ground, and their flaps of skin swing as they move slowly through the forest. Shakespeare beautifully renders the scene: ''My hounds are bred out of the Spartan kind, so flew'd, so sanded, and their heads are hung with ears that sweep away the morning dew; crook-knee'd, ... slow in pursuit, but match'd in mouth like bells, each under each. A cry more tunable was never hollaed to.'' With a swipe of the quill, we are with the hounds.

In Act 5, ''... whilst the heavy ploughman snores, all with weary task fordone. ... Now it is the time of night that the graves all gaping wide, every one lets forth his sprite, in the church-way paths to glide.'' Puck is describing the night. Reading these sensory words that speak to the reader's sight, hearing, touch (think of exhaustion), and even the ''sixth'' sense that resides somewhere with the supernatural, the night surrounds us, and perhaps brushes against the hairs on the backs of our necks.

Metaphors

Metaphors are created when authors use language in an implied comparison between two things that are unrelated. This type of figurative language asks the reader to recognize common characteristics between two things.

Shakespeare uses a great deal of metaphor throughout the play. In Act 3, Helena offers this metaphor: ''O, when she's angry, she is keen and shrewd! She was a vixen when she went to school; and though she be but little, she is fierce.'' In this backhanded compliment, Helena's comparison takes the hot-headed and ill-tempered characteristics of a vixen and attributes them to Hermia.

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