Hamlet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream: the Themes of Uncertainty and Doubt
In the tragedy Hamlet and the comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare presents two plays that are very different in context but quite similar in foundation. Both plays examine reality throughout the narrative structure. In Hamlet, reality is consistently in question because of the pervasive strain of doubt in the narrative. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, reality is blurred by the prevalence of dreams used to explain magical occurrences. Doubt disrupts the narrative structure of reality by leaving events unexplained, permitting us to call into question what we consider to be reality. Dreams, as part of the fantasy world, exist separate from reality. When placed into the narrative, dreams function in a manner similar to doubt by disrupting reality. Both plays call into question reality by obscuring the lines between realism and fantasy, reality and theatricality. Consequently, if drama is a representation of real life, then Shakespeare is questioning real life as well. This is depicted at the endings of both plays through Shakespeare’s involvement of the audience within the framework of the narratives.
In the final act of Hamlet, Hamlet disrupts the narrative by addressing not only the other characters in the scene, but the audience members as well. Resolved to die, he says:
You that look pale, and tremble at this chance,
That are but mutes or audience to this act,
Had I but time – as this fell sergeant, Death,
Is strict in his arrest – O, I could tell you –
But let it be. Horatio, I am dead,
Thou livest. Report me and my cause aright
To the unsatisfied (Hamlet 5.2.332-339).
Hamlet solicits Horatio to tell his story, “Horatio, I am dead, Thou livest. Report me and my cause aright.” Here, Horatio becomes the playwright. However, one interpreter of his story is not enough for Hamlet. In the textual notation, “mutes or audience” is defined as meaning “silent spectators” (Hamlet 1233). Accordingly, “Report me and my cause aright” is not only directed to Horatio, it is directed to the audience as well. Up until this point, not once in his many soliloquies has Hamlet spoken to anyone beyond himself. This is the first time that he directly acknowledges or addresses the audience. He is asking them to bear witness, to make sure his story is told correctly. This makes sense because no one else in the play is more aware of the sequence of events than the audience since they are the only ones who have heard Hamlet’s soliloquies. Hence, the only accurate representation of Hamlet’s story must come from the audience members themselves. Shakespeare also comments on the relationship between theatricality and reality by directly involving the audience in the interpretation of uncertain events.
Hamlet’s conscious awareness of the audience has further implications. Prior to this point, Hamlet has based his actions on his knowledge of events and circumstances as they have been revealed to him throughout the play. If he were completely comfortable with what he has based his actions on, then he would not have addressed the audience in this speech. Hamlet knows that Horatio does not know everything that he does (because he did not hear Hamlet’s soliloquies), which is why he asks the audience to make sure Horatio’s depiction is accurate. Because he enlists both of them in the act, it suggests that he, too, remains uncertain of all that has happened and doubts that just one party could portray him accurately. As his death approaches, Hamlet appears both unsure and untrusting of reality, and questioning of its individual interpretation. This is manifested by the contradictions he makes in his speeches. Hamlet says that he could tell us what has happened, “O, I could tell you – But let it be,” suggesting that he is certain of all events (Hamlet 5.2.337-338). Then, only moments later, he says, “Things standing thus unknown, shall I leave behind me!” suggesting that he has accepted the fact that he cannot and will not know all things (Hamlet 5.2.345).
The ending of Hamlet is inconclusive, in large part because of Hamlet’s contradictory nature and the play’s investment in doubt and uncertainty. Additionally, designating Horatio as the playwright questions the validity of the entire play simply because it suggests that Hamlet is the play Horatio has written. Hamlet’s reliance on the audience to insure accuracy in Horatio’s depiction of events further blurs the lines between reality and theatricality.
The involvement of the audience at the end of Hamlet is similar to the audiences’ role in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In the comedy, confusion rests in the fact that the various characters know only what they have been directly involved in, and even those instances are questionable because of the magical qualities of the forest. Just as in Hamlet, the audience is the only witness to all of the events.
Dreams are an important theme in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The forest functions as a dreamland, a place where the impossible often happens. The events in the forest occur without explanation, just as dreams seem to do at first glance. Characters in the play use the idea of dreams to explain bizarre occurrences they have found themselves in. Bottom justifies his confusion over his experiences in the forest by saying,
I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream, past the wit of man to say what dream it was. Man is but an ass, if he go about [t’] expound this dream. Methought I was – there is no man can tell what. Methought I was, and methought I had – but man is but [a patch’d] fool, if he will offer to say what methought I had… I will get Peter Quince to write a ballad of this dream. It shall be call’d “Bottom’s Dream,” because it hath no bottom… (Midsummer 4.1.204-216).
Bottom tries to comprehend all that he has experienced, but quickly surrenders this goal, claiming, “Man is but an ass” if he attempts to explain his dream. Because he cannot understand or describe what has happened to him, Bottom suggests that it was all merely a dream, the “rare vision” figments of his unconsciousness.
Like Hamlet, Bottom is contradictory in his actions and speech. He contradicts himself by first saying that his dream is incomprehensible, and then declaring that he will get Peter Quince to write a ballad about it. How will Quince write a poem about a dream that no one could possibly understand, not even the dreamer, because “it hath no bottom”?
The nature of dreams is an important part of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Dreams interrupt reality because they take away the individual’s control by wandering through the unconscious mind. They disrupt time, allowing what seems impossible to occur. Sigmund Freud believed that dreams are traumatic experiences because they dislocate our minds. He wrote that psychoanalysis is similar to the action of a play. “The action of the play consists in nothing other than the process of revealing, with cunning delays and ever-mounting excitement…” (Freud 920).
As a playwright, Shakespeare was heavily invested in producing “cunning delays” within his works. In both Hamlet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the action of the play is disrupted by doubt and dreams, causing the characters to become involved in theatricality. It becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish between reality and unreality as the plays’ narratives develop. The characters even become confused themselves. Hamlet becomes so invested in acting that he is constantly confusing real emotions with fake emotions, reality with theatricality. Hamlet’s investment in theatricality is brought to its peak when he decides to test the King with the “The Murther of Gonzago.” Here we see drama becoming the means through which reality is brought into being. Hamlet is using make believe to give birth to reality and truth.
Both of these Shakespearian dramas confront the question of reality. The playwright comments on the duality of uncertainty and doubt by the mere fact that A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a comedy and Hamlet is a tragedy. The characters Hamlet and Bottom are linked by the fact that they are both uncertain of the events they have found themselves entangled in. It is interesting that they both want their experiences to be documented despite the shroud of doubt concerning the events. When their stories have been told, how will we know that what is being translated is what actually happened? What is said of reality when reality must be expressed theatrically?
Through the actions of his characters Shakespeare blurs the lines of realism and fantasy, reality and theatricality. Hamlet and Bottom are deeply invested in theatricality. Both characters partake in acting throughout the plays, questioning the reality of the narratives. In addition, Hamlet looks to theatricality in order to explain events, just as Bottom looks to dreams to explain the unexplainable. In the form of doubt and dreams, and through the characters of Hamlet and Bottom, Shakespeare comments on the nature of theatricality when juxtaposed with reality, and suggests that we would not know what real life was if we did not have a sense of drama.
At the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare questions the audience’s reality through the character of Puck. Puck says to the audience, if the play has offended, that they should remember it as nothing more than a dream:
If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended:
That you have but slumbered here,
While these visions did appear;
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend.
If you pardon, we will mend (Midsummer 5.1.423-430).
This is problematic because the audience did, in fact, view the play. Of even more significance are the underlying questions brought about by Puck’s epilogue, as well as Bottom’s dream and Hamlet’s dying declaration. Is it that easy to translate reality into a dream, or a dream into reality? Or, for that matter, can real life be made into a play, or a play into real life? Most importantly, would we know what real life was if we didn’t have a sense of drama, recognizing that everything is, in fact, so uncertain?
Freud, Sigmund. “The Interpretation of Dreams.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed.Vincent B. Leitch. New York: Norton, 2001. 919-929.
Shakespeare, William. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. 1600. Riverside Shakespeare: The Complete Works. Ed. Evan G. Blakemore and J.J.M. Tobin. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997. 251-283.
—. Hamlet. 1603. Riverside Shakespeare: The Complete Works. Ed. Evan G. Blakemore and J.J.M. Tobin. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997. 1183-1245.
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