A Midsummer Night’s Dream: The Importance of the Nighttime Forest
In Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream the dark forest is the center of the world, relegating Athens, center of the civilized Greek world, to the periphery. Day gives way to night, and mortal rulers leave the stage to be replaced by fairies. The special properties of night in a forest make it the perfect setting for the four lovers to set out on a project of self-discovery. Shakespeare implies that in darkness, reliance on senses other than eyesight leads to true seeing. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the nighttime forest, by disrupting and transforming vision, forces introspection and improvisation that help the four lovers on their way to self-understanding.
The darkness of the night setting seems particularly important in a play (and a culture) where the language of love relies so heavily on sight imagery. Fairy magic literalizes the connection between love and sight: appropriately, Oberon’s love juice is applied to the eyes. In the language of the play, to look on or at someone is the most common metonymic expression for falling in love with a new person, or for spending time with the one you already love. Lysander steels himself and Hermia against the trial of separation with a call to “starve our sight / From lover’s food till morrow deep midnight” (1.1, ll. 221-2). Vision and hunger together become the elements of Lysander’s metaphor about lovers and separation; to see is to be with, and a lover’s company is elevated in importance to the need for food and drink. But Hermia and Lysander are not going to see each other by the light of day. The scant light of midnight-midnight, when dawn and dusk are both equally far off-will provide all…
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…” which connotes shallow feeling (Garber 10/13); the word “dote” is instead reserved for description of his former feelings about Hermia (4.1 ll. 163-73). His feelings for Hermia are the ones that have metaphorically been snuffed out by the dawn, “melted as the snow” before the sun (4.1 l. 163). What began in night as magic, as introspection and improvisation, has in daylight solidified into deep feeling. Although he speaks of Helena being “the object and pleasure” of his eye, the visual metaphor is accompanied by a proclamation of the faith and virtue of his heart’s devotion (4.1 ll. 166-7). Introspection allows keener observation; new ways of looking enrich more ordinary types of sight. Night teaches the four lovers how to see more clearly during the day.
Shakespeare, William. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. New York: Washington Square Press, 1993.