In William Shakespeare’s play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the audience follows the characters through a magical, dreamlike adventure that creates thoughtful laughter. The comedy goes far beyond surface jokes because each trick holds a deeper meaning. Shakespeare’s immaculate and clever use of the English language presents his audience with ongoing humor, which is not only enjoyable but causes them to meditate. The crafty humor in this play is seen most heavily within the symbolism and literary devices used in the play and contributes to the theme of the work of reason versus emotion as a whole.
The significance of the symbols prevalent throughout A Midsummer Night’s Dream at times evoke laughter and at other times cause reflection. The main symbol throughout the play is King Oberon’s love potion that creates a plethora of problems for the characters in the play. When Oberon’s mischievous sprite, Puck, sets out to enchant Demetrius into loving Helena and uses it on the wrong Athenian lover, mayhem breaks out. This scene of four lovers quarrelling on who they truly love is the play’s climax and creates a most humorous event.
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However, the depth of this occurrence goes past basic comedy and symbolizes the fragility and fickleness of love that Shakespeare is trying to express thematically throughout the work. Therefore the humor caused by the love potion creates a comic scene that also expresses the power yet instability of love. Many of Shakespeare’s literary devices used in A Midsummer Night’s Dream show a similar pattern of cerebral wit for the audience. The comedy of the play especially shown in the production of Pyramus and Thisby is primarily based off of Shakespeare’s cunning use of figurative language, irony and diction.
The over-exaggeration towards such humor is amplified by the ridiculousness and abundance of figurative language such as puns like; “would within this wood” and alliteration like; “gracious, golden, glittering, gleams” (Vi 269). The surplus of clever techniques within the play-within-a-play makes the symbolic play that directly reflects the story of the people at the wedding into a comedy rather than a tragedy. Philostrate enforces this idea when describing seeing the play rehearsed to Theseus. “And tragical, my noble lord it is, for Pyramus therein doth kill himself. When I saw rehearse, I must confess, I made mine eyes water, but more merry tears. The passion of loud laughter never shed” (Vi 66-70). Not only does this statement cause humor because of its contradiction, and foreshadows the play’s ridiculousness that is shown in the repetition of words, unusual metaphors and breaking of the illusion of the play of reality. The irony is also something very dominant throughout the play, which “awakens thoughtful laughter.” One example is the dramatic irony in the scene where Bottom’s head is turned into a donkey and he doesn’t even realize it or show concern.
The many laughs occurring in this scene not only illustrate the book’s fanciful nature but give us a further understanding of one of the book’s main characters, Bottom. The irony of this incoherence towards his transformation indicates his ambivalent attitude and improperly placed priorities similar to Gregor Samsa in Kafka’s Metamorphosis. One of the play’s most unique features is its diction and use of it in a way to cause comedy and symbolize the character of whom is speaking. One device used is a malapropism, in which the character Bottom is constantly saying the incorrect thing although he claims to be the greatest actor to live.
His confusion in saying “Ninny’s tomb” instead of “Ninus tomb” gives the more learned readers a chance to catch these mistakes and justify them as part of Bottom’s persona. The double meanings of Shakespeare’s work are always one of his most brilliant techniques as it adds a whole other layer of meaning to his work. When Theseus interrupts the play to say, “This fellow doth not stand upon points” (Vi 118), we laugh not only at the impolite interruption but its additional meaning that the actor doesn’t speak correctly on these topics or recognize punctuation. Shakespeare’s use of malapropism and double meanings enhances the humor of these characters and increases our interpretation of their deeper inner beings.
These various examples of devices and techniques used in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream to create thoughtful laughter are only some of many throughout the play. Shakespeare ingeniously words and structures his every sentence to fit the works meaning as a whole. His symbolism especially, which creates most of the comic scenes throughout the story, directly relates to the play’s themes and tone. The romantic, satirical and dreamlike tones of this work are shown true in the symbolism of the love potion and play within the play. The major theme of reason versus emotion is also awakened in the readers as they laugh about the fantasy-like characters.
In these characters, we recognize their depth of significance that not only enforces their unusual or ridiculous behaviors but symbolizes themes of the play itself. For example, Theseus and Hippolyta’s nobility and level-headedness represent reason and order that comes from their Athenian noble lifestyle and connection to the day. Oberon and Titania on the other hand represent instability and passion that is expressed through their quarrelled marriage and supernatural powers.
This tale of frustrated love and mistaken identity makes audiences laugh at the ridiculous ease with which lovers change the object of their affection, while still believing that their feelings are completely sincere. However, although it is a comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream also poses some profound and difficult questions: What is love? How and why do people fall in and out of love?
Shakespeare leaves such questions for the audience to answer and ponder themselves. Shakespeare writes about kings, fairies and magical spells. Yet he is such a keen observer of human psychology that his characters and themes still speak to today’s audiences. The whole of the play being formed around an underlying genius mind transforms what may initially be viewed as ridiculous comedy and odd phraseology into an intellectual and meaningful creation that evokes thoughtful laughter.