A Midsummer Night’s Dream Essay: The Identity of Characters

Identity of Characters in A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Where Shakespeare’s tragedies will tell the story, chiefly, of a single principal character, this is rarely the case with his comedies. The comedies are more social and deal with groups of characters. In the case of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the principal groups are, at first, introduced severally. Though, one group may interact with another (as when Puck anoints Lysander’s eyes, or Titania is in love with Bottom) they retain separate identities.

While each of the groups is separate, there are symmetries which appear among them: Theseus and Oberon (and, in a way, Bottom) are rulers and figures of authority in their proper spheres. Hippolyta and Titania are consorts who defy their lords, but ultimately submit to their lordship. Often one pair is to be contrasted with another: the well-matched lovers Lysander and Hermia contrast with the ill-matched Demetrius and Helena (they resemble Pyramus and Thisbe). Even Puck has his human counterpart in Philostrate. The serious strife of the young nobles contrasts with the good fellowship of the mechanicals while it resembles the contention of the fairy rulers. Complete depiction of a complex character (as in Hamlet) is not attempted here, and would be wholly out of place. This is not a fault but reflects the different concern here of the playwright. But we do find very economical portrayal of strong and vivid characters, in Puck, Bottom, Oberon, Titania, Theseus, Helena and Hermia. Of these, the first two stand out as among the greatest of Shakespeare’s creations.

 

Puck first appears at the start of Act 2, and is rarely off the stage from this point. He is essential to the narrative: he carries out his master’s orders obe…

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…ically as anything in the tragedies, his anti-greeting (“Ill met by moonlight…”) almost a snarl. But his concern for the lovers, and his pity for the ridiculous dotage of Titania show how he is capable of gentler feeling. Theseus’ obvious sympathy for Hermia in 1.1, has a parallel in his concern not to belittle the efforts of the mechanicals to celebrate his wedding: “The best in this kind are but shadows, and the worst are no worse, if imagination amend them”. His prose speaking here might indicate a concern that the workmen should understand him, to lessen their sense of awe. In Theseus, Shakespeare brings dignity and humanity to the familiar mythical hero; in Oberon, he embodies the most benign qualities of Elizabethan woodland sprites in a fairy king more vivid, concrete and passionate than any original of Oberon on whom he may have based his depiction.

 

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