Reading the Dream Symbolism Through Freudian Concepts

July 16, 2021 by Essay Writer

Shakespeare anticipates the Freudian concept of the dream as egoistic wish-fulfillment through the chaotic and mimetic desires of his characters in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” The play also utilizes a secondary meaning of the word “dream” – musicality – by tapping into theater’s potential for sensory enchantment. Through this artificial recreation of the dream-state, Shakespeare integrates the audience, whom the solipsistic characters have run the risk of alienating, into the dream. Ultimately, the play refutes a psychoanalytic interpretation by reminding the observer that dreams, much like love, sometimes have “no bottom” (IV.i.209) and lack logical motivation.

If the dreamer’s goal is always wish-fulfillment, cloaked or not, as Freud argues, then the four lovers fit his theory perfectly. Shakespeare toys with the fickleness of desire through Oberon’s “love-in-idleness” flower, a symbol of debauched purity: “Before, milk-white; now, purple with love’s wound” (II.i.167). Puck’s haphazard “planting” of the juice in the lovers’ eyes sets up a system of indiscriminate desire-attachments. The gaze becomes the only agent for desire, yet it is a manipulated gaze which destroys reasoning – as Oberon gleefully notes, Titania may not even relegate herself to her own species: “The next thing then she waking looks upon – / Be it on lion, bear, or wolf, or bull, / On meddling monkey, or on busy ape – / She shall pursue it with the soul of love” (II.i.179-182). Laura Mulvey addresses the phallocentric roots of the gaze in “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”:

“Woman then stands in patriarchal culture as signifier for the male other, bound by a symbolic order in which man can live out his fantasies and obsessions through linguistic command by imposing them on the silent image of woman still tied to her place as bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning.”

Titania and Oberon’s squabble over the changeling child follows Mulvey’s second point on the male fear of castration and its relationship to the gaze: “The function of the woman in forming the patriarchal unconscious is two-fold; she first symbolizes the castration threat by her real absence of a penis and second she thereby raises her child into the symbolic.” According to Mulvey, Titania “turns her child into the signifier of her own desire to possess a penis,” and Oberon wrests the symbolic phallus from her to retain his status as “the Name of the Father and the Law.” The tense and insulting greetings between Oberon and Titania typify this; Oberon refers to her as “proud Titania” (II.i.60), with a possible phallic pun on the obsolete meaning of “proud” as “Sensually excited; ?swelling,’ lascivious” (OED, 8), and Titania returns the favor with the more direct “jealous Oberon” (II.i.61).

Shakespeare seemingly resists Mulvey’s explanation by bestowing upon Titania, and the other women, the power of the gaze as well, although with less dominant effect. As Helena laments, “We cannot fight for love as men may do; / We should be wooed, and were not made to woo” (II.i.241-242). Titania confuses the gaze, which makes her “eye enthrallèd to” Bottom’s “shape” (III.i.123), with the more profound admiration love provokes: “And thy fair virtue virtue’s force perforce doth move me / On the first view to say, to swear, I love thee” (III.i.124-125). Her desire is not merely mimetic; it is a product of puppetry. Yet she never relinquishes her maternal, doting instincts even under the spell of her manipulated gaze, implying some constancy to her desire: “Come, sit thee down upon this flow’ry bed, / While I thy amiable cheeks do coy, / And stick musk-roses in thy sleek smooth head, / And kiss thy fair large ears, my gentle joy” (IV.i.1-4). Though the entire play is peppered with references to flowers, Titania’s insistence on decorating her ersatz child with musk-roses bifurcates her love instinct, suggesting it stems from both the eros of the sensual musk and the purity of the white roses. More conventional forms of mimetic desire show in Helena’s questioning the artifice of Hermia’s hold over Demetrius: “O, teach me how you look, and with what art / You sway the motion of Demetrius’ heart” (I.i.192-193). As the generally self-deprecating Helena concedes, her failure to entice Demetrius has little to do with her appearance: “Through Athens I am thought as fair as she. / But what of that? Demetrius thinks not so. / He will not know what all but he do know” (I.ii.227). Love, and especially seduction, has little to do “with the eyes, but with the mind” (I.ii.234), and the edifying power of imagination can raise someone’s physical and spiritual stock: “Things base and vile, holding no quantity, / Love can transpose to form and dignity” (I.ii.232-233). Shakespeare’s inverted sentence construction repeats the process by which a person invents substance from nothingness.

Mimetic desire, which operates under a system of artificiality and blindness and retains only traces of original desire, seems most like an attempt at self-validation through another person’s eyes. Indeed, Shakespeare exploits this egoistic impulse of the dream by playing on the word “eye.” The eye has two additional and related purposes beyond channeling the gaze: as a pun on the personal pronoun and as a reflective surface in which the viewer can glory in his or her own image while being pinned by the otherworldly force of the gaze. Helena attributes Hermia’s magnetism to the brightness and celestial allure of her eyes: “For she hath blessèd and attractive eyes. / How came her eyes so bright? ? / What wicked and dissembling glass of mine / Made me compare with Hermia’s sphery eyne!” (II.ii.97-98, 104-105) Her dissembling glass leads to a distortion of self-image that results in self-loathing: “I am your spaniel, and, Demtrius, / The more you beat me I will fawn on you” (II.i.204-205). Demetrius, under the spell of the love-juice, later reverses the judgment of Helena’s eyes in a passage which exaggerates the ideal over the real and continues the trope of brightness/whiteness as a reflective, selfish medium through the imagery of snow:

O Helen, goddess, nymph, perfect, divine!

To what, my love, shall I compare thine eyne?

Crystal is muddy. O, how ripe in show

Thy lips, those kissing cherries, tempting grow!

That pure congealèd white – high Taurus’ snow

Fanned with the eastern wind – turns to a crow

When thou hold’st up thy hand. O, let me kiss

This princess of pure white, this seal of bliss!


Titania’s substitute-love for Bottom, which even he must admit she has “little reason for” (III.i.126), is lightly mocked in a coy Shakespearean word game. In her order to Bottom, she begins by commanding subservience and stressing her high rank: “Out of this wood do not desire to go. / Thou shalt remain here, whether thou wilt or no. / I am a spirit of no common rank: / The summer still doth tend upon my state” (III.i.134-137). What is not apparent to an audience member but only to the reader is that her first seven lines form an acrostic that reads: “O-T-I-T-An-I-A” (the fifth line includes both ?a’ and ?n’). While this cannot be passed off as mere coincidence, in conjunction with her self-serving speech it does resemble an onanistic ode.

But the ode, one of the more sonorous forms of poetry, does fulfill part of the secondary definition of “dream”: “The sound of a musical instrument; music, minstrelsy, melody; noise, sound” (OED, 2). The language of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is as melodic as any play Shakespeare has produced, and often the words self-consciously reproduce the thematic material, as when Oberon reminisces in alliterative and internally rhythmic fashion:

Thou rememb’rest

Since once I sat upon a promontory,

And heard a mermaid on a dolphin’s back

Uttering such dulcet and harmonious breath

That the rude sea grew civil at her song

And certain stars shot madly from their spheres

To hear the sea-maid’s music?


The slight phonic dissonance between pairs of words such as “since/once” and “upon/a promontory,” coupled with the delayed rhyming of “heard” and “mermaid” and the more conventional yet still technically adroit alliteration of “s” throughout, produce an instrumental arrangement in our ears equal to the beauty of the sea-maid’s music. The speech ends fittingly on an interrogative, so as to stress upon the actor the vocal progression from the base of recollection to the elevation of the question.

The relationship between the dream and music is furthered elsewhere; Lysander associates the fickleness of love with the brevity of sound and image, which fuse in dream: “Making it momentany as a sound, / Swift as a shadow, short as any dream” (I.i.143-144). Music – “music such as charmeth sleep” (IV.i.80), as Titania defines it – explicitly encourages sleep and protects the dreamer, as the fairies sing in chorus to the recumbent Titania: “Philomel with melody, / Sing in our sweet lullaby; / Lulla, lulla, lullaby; lulla, lulla, lullaby. / Never harm / Nor spell nor charm / Come our lovely lady night. / So good night, with lullaby” (II.ii.13-19). Titania later satisfies Bottom’s “reasonable good ear in music” (IV.i.26) with rural music which, as Norton notes “continues during the following dialogue, rather than a separate dialogue.” The layering of background music over the lovers’ ensuing dialogue, which juxtaposes Titania’s declarations of affection with Bottom’s appetitive appeals, exemplifies Shakespeare’s expertise over dramaturgy which induces a similar range of emotion in the audience. Titania’s words alone produce pathos; coupled with Bottom’s, bathos; and the addition of the music stirs enchantment.

This spellbinding mode of storytelling is what elevates “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” beyond simple farce. Nothing in the play can be taken at face value – not because of deceit, but from the mysticism that shrouds everything, as Hermia observes: “Methinks I see these things with parted eye, / When everything seems double” (IV.i.186-187). Demetrius agrees that consciousness has been indistinct from unconsciousness: “It seems to me / That yet we sleep, we dream” (IV.i.189-190). Surprisingly, it is Bottom who has the most “profound” thoughts on the adventures, in that he recognizes his inability to comprehend them: “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” (IV.i.200-202). His stuttering attempts to grasp the ineffable concept urge him to enlist a writer to commit his dream to paper: “Methought I was – there is no man can tell what. / Methought I was, and methought I had – but man is but a / patched 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 called ‘Bottom’s Dream,’ / because it hath no bottom” (IV.i.202-204, 207-209). Bottom, the ham of the acting troupe, is emblematic of the problem confronting the play: how is the audience to remain interested in other people’s dreams and loves? The answer lies partly in Bottom’s butchered description of his dream: “The / eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man’s / hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart / to report what my dream was” (IV.i.204-207).

Shakespeare does an admirable job of representing these sensory devices, especially through his use of music, but his subtler tactic is to include the audience in the dream. Puck tells us that we have “slumbered here, / While this visions did appear” (V.ii.3-4). This satisfies firstly our narcissism, and secondly, witnessing the lovers watching the play – itself a confirmation of their status via gazing at their social inferiors – gratifies us with a third-degree gaze of our own. The tie to theater, then, rests on Theseus’s claim that “The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling, / Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven, / And as imagination bodies forth / The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen / Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing / A local habitation and a name” (V.i.12-17). Puck, the shape-changer, is the originator of all the mischief and imagination, a poet of selfhood and of others. An analogy to Shakespeare is not entirely absurd. Puck’s power, though, is reined in by Oberon’s (Queen Elizabeth?) command; even he is subject to the gaze of authority and authorship.

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