Symbolism and Literary Devices in A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Society fuels the idea of how people should live their lives through many vessels, including the likes of social media and advertising. People positioned higher class or celebrities display lives that everyone holds on a pedestal, as a building block to live up to, meaning everyone wants to advance to their level. While these standards are not technically bad and do indeed help people succeed, the influence of these factors builds a singular path in which people begin to piggy-back off of others’ success, contributing to no deviation, which also creates a societal flow that puts down people breaking off in other directions. While this is more of a modern system, Shakespeare uses this theory to aid in the ebb and flow of the story of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Shakespeare’s big idea throughout the play of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the idea that people should break away from societal norms, cutting their own path against the grain. He demonstrates his thinking of this through symbolism, metaphors, and tone.
Within the play, the characters of Hermia and Lysander fall madly in love, but along the lines of Athiean rule, they can not marry unless the father of Hermia approves of Lysander. When her father denies her request and explains to her that she either marry Demetrius, submit to a life of nunnery, or be put to death, all of which are aided by king Theseus’s word, her and Lysander cut their own path and decide to leave Athens to become who they want to be. The risk of decisions like these throughout the play are great, but these decisions allow the characters to grow and to get what they want through their own means.
Shakespeare also highlights these choices and his overall big idea with the support of literary devices, such as symbolism, metaphors, and juxtaposition. These techniques help build the story and anchor our understanding of the choices the characters make and how the outcomes play out.
One of the more predominant literary devices used within this play would be that of symbolism to show how people can control their own path. Many of symbols can be found within his writing, including the likes of the night, the woods, and the moon. The night can symbolize the darkness and a state of blindness, mischief and madness, while the woods give a set of danger and risk, as symbolized by the action of Lysander and Hermia escaping from Athenian law. These characters set their plan into motion at “deep midnight”(1.1 223), using the cloak of darkness as cover. As in the case of mischief, the woods is the epicenter of the story, the place where all three separate storylines intertwine and bend to each other. Later in the play, Hermia declares, “Dark night, that from the eye his function takes,/ The ear quicker of apprehension makes./ Wherein it doth impair the seeing sense,/ It pays the hearing double recompense. Thou art not by mine eye, Lysander, found;/ Mine ear, I thank it, brought me to thy sound,”(Act III, Scene 2, 177- 182). Lysander, under the spell of Puck’s potion, abandoned Hermia in a blind state of lust. Hermia, not being able to see well, pursued Lysander by sound, trying to find her love. The first line, “Dark night, that from the eye his function takes”, symbolizes blindness and madness caused by the cloak of night. This can also symbolism the blindness of love and lust within the play, giving a representation through Hermia’s eyes. Her wandering aimlessly to the sound of Lysander’s footsteps also gives an example of her breaking away from societal norms, following the person she loves most, even if her father doesn’t approve. Another example of symbolism in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the moon. The moon within the play is a symbol of time and waiting, and we also see this early on in the play. Within the text, Shakespeare writes,” Now, fair Hippolyta, our nuptial hour/ Draws on apace; four happy days bring in/ Another moon: but O, methinks how slow/ This old moon wanes! She lingers my desires,”(1.1 1-4). This quote is from Theseus and we see the symbolism of the moon in this quote. Theseus is eager to marry Hippolyta, his bride he won, but complains as time lingers on, blaming the moon as he believes it drags on the days.
In total, these examples help aid in Shakspeare’s big idea throughout the text by showing how people should break from societal chains and go their own path. The Woods were a closed curtain, allowing people to truly express themselves on how they feel instead of adhering to Athenian law. The moon was seen as the passage of time, allotting people’s patience for what they believe is right and teaching people that success or power does not come instantly.
In addition, Shakespeare uses metaphors to build his stance on people going against the grain of societal boundaries. Shakespeare writes, “I am your spaniel, and, Demetrius,/ The more you beat me I will fawn on you./ Use me but as you spaniel; spurn me, strike me,/ Neglect me , lose me; only give me leave,/ Unworthy as I am, to follow you,”(2.1 203-207). Helena compares herself to that of a loyal dog. Not only is she willing to follow him, but she is showing her lack of self-worth when she encourages him to “spurn me, strike me, neglect me.” By encouraging Demetrius to treat her poorly, the audience sees what little self-value Helena has for herself; she would rather be looked down upon, ignored and beaten by the one she loves than be within another and treated well, willing to follow Demetrius forever, no matter how mean he is to her. This shows her breaking away from society because Demetrius doesn’t want her, but she feels being with him is the best for both of them, and she pursues this no matter how many obstacles he throws her way. The words “beat me” actually are what they mean. Demetrius threatened to take violent action against her. Earlier in the play, Hermia compliments Helena and tells her that Demetrius will love her, to which she replies, “Call you me fair?/ That fair against unsay./ Demetrius loves your fair: O happy fair!/ Your eyes are lode-stars;”(1.1 183-185). Here, Helena criticises Hermia for calling her beautiful, claiming that Demetrius loves Hermia and will never love herself. She uses this as a way to set her own roadblock, breaking down her own self esteem to give herself an excuse to break societal chains. Within real life, people do this all of the time, giving excuses for why they shouldn’t do what they want and instead “go with the flow”. Shakespeare capitalizes on this, showing that people need to not be their own worst enemy.
All in all, Shakespeare uses metaphors to help build his major idea of people breaking down societal chains and cutting their own path. Within the example of Helena, she cuts through the blockades Demetrius puts up for her, rolling with the punches and finally getting what she wants.
The final literary device Shakspeare uses within A Midsummer Night’s Dream is tone. Shakespeare uses a group of mostly three tones within the play: somber, comical, and bright. The play starts off in a light tone as Theseus and Hippolyta voice their opinions on their upcoming wedding but quickly turns sour as we get into the conversation between Lysander and Hermia about their forbidden relationship, Hermia stating, “If then true lovers have been ever crossed,/ It stands as an edict in destiny./ Then let us teach our trials patience,/ Because it is a customary cross,/ As due to love as thoughts, and dreams, and sighs,/ Wishes and tears, poor fancy’s followers”(1.1 152-157). Within this conversation, Hermia loses hope and starts to accept the fact that she can not marry Lysander and must obey her father. The lines “If then true lovers have been ever crossed,/ It stands as an edict in destiny” states that she believes that she believes that their relationship is not just meant to be. This is an example of conforming to societal norms, limiting her free will. Another example of this somber tone is a little bit earlier in the play, where Theseus tells Hermia, “Take time to pause, and by the next new moon,/The sealing-day betwixt my love and me/ For the everlasting bond of fellowship,/ Upon that day either prepare to die/ For disobedience to your father’s will,/ Or else wed Demetrius, as he would,/ Or on Diana’s altar to protest/ For aye, austerity and single life,”(1.1 85-92). In this quote, Theseus tells Hermia that she either listens to her father and marries Demetrius, submits to a life of nunnery, or be put to death. This carries a dark tone because this puts her in a position in which she either marries someone she doesn’t want to or be put to death. This is an example of societal norms, trying to mold Hermia into something she doesn’t want to be. This limits her, ultimately leading to her running into the woods with Lysander.
All in all, Shakespeare uses tone throughout the entire play, switching between somber, comical, and bright and happy tones. These tones are used to help develop the situation the characters are in. He uses this to support his big idea by bending how readers read the play and building situations where the characters feel discouraged and have to overcome obstacles.
Shakespeare’s big idea also is reflected heavily in multiple other writing pieces, including the likes of A Road Not Taken by Robert Frost and A Letter To My Parents by user Barely_breathing. In A Road Not Taken, the author views a problem in life as two roads, writing, “And sorry I could not travel both/ And be one traveler, long I stood/ And looked down one as far as I could/ To where it bent in the undergrowth;/ Then took the other, as just as fair,/ And having perhaps the better claim,/ Because it was grassy and wanted wear;/ Though as for that the passing there/ Had worn them really about the same,”(Frost 2-10). In this quote, the author views both paths, one well beaten by footprints and used, and the other overgrown with grass and weeds. These two decisions symbolize any we come across in life, one that the majority take, and one that verges off into a new direction. Society wants us to follow in each other’s footsteps and go the same way. People need to see that it’s okay to try something new and follow their heart in any direction it takes them. Going against society is how people pull ahead of the crowd and land on top, succeeding in their practice.
Similar to this point, A Letter To My Parents follows the author’s life and how she couldn’t live up to her parents’ expectations, stating, “I realized, Dad, that I could never make you happy by bringing home a boy for you to interrogate. I realized who I was, who I am, is a disgrace to you,”(ALTMP 7-8). The author broke away from her parents’ expectations, realizing that what her parents wanted for her wasn’t good for her. In this quote, the author apologizes to her father for coming out lesbian. While this in society is not wrong and is encouraged, her father views this as bad. She carved her own path out of the situation her parents made for her and made her way through what she believed was right for her.
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