There’s a fascination with dreams in Shakespeare, though Midsummer is the only play to announce one in its title. What’s odd is that aside from Hermia’s unnerving vision in the forest, no dreams are dreamt. Instead, we find characters confronting, exploring, and indulging imagination, testing conditions under which the imagined turns real.
Key to Renaissance understanding of dreams was their relationship to Imagination. Night visions came from an unsettled or overactive mind, producing “a bubbling scum or froth of fancy” (Nash). Imagination was a virtue and a vice: considered “the excellentest and noblest power” (Du Laurens), as well as the “mother of all mischiefs, confusions, disorders, … passions, troubles” (Charron).
Imagination is a topic of Midsummer, most famously with the text: “The lunatic, the lover and the poet / Are of imagination all compact” (5.1). In context, these lines show Theseus backing reason over imagination. Early on, however, he fuses current events with creative thinking to charm an Amazon:
The movement from combat to courtship may be insurmountable for some, but Theseus employs imagination as an agent of change. If Hippolyta responds to his vision, the fantasy is made real.
Romantic imaginings are replaced by thoughts more sinister. Hermia, in love with Lysander against her father’s wishes, learns that her dad prefers a dead daughter to a disobedient one. The effects of his twisted paternal authority provide the central conflict. Egeus cites “ancient privilege” (1.1), but the entitlement he imagines contradicts the law of nature.
Hermia and Lysander, pursued by Demetrius and Helena, escape to a wood inhabited by fairies. The supernatural realm lays bare the darker sides of Imagination: mischief and disorder abound in Puck; trouble and confusion follow Oberon and Titania’s clash over a changeling. Mostly, love runs amuck in the forest. To Renaissance thinkers, passion was driven by Imagination, and the distorted, fleeting perceptions it inspires. “[R]eason and love keep little company together nowadays,” says Bottom (3.1). The fairy world exaggerates that truth. We laugh at how quickly people fall in and out of love, with whom and with what.
Love happens in the blink of an eye, particularly if the eye has been charmed by fairies. Midsummer draws our attention to eyes and ways of seeing. Hermia suggests her father “look… but with my eyes” to appreciate Lysander’s qualities (1.1). Helena accuses Hermia’s eyes of snatching Demetrius’s heart. Still, it’s the mind’s eye that best indicates love: the flower distilled by Puck is the pansy (pensée); “that’s for thoughts” (Hamlet 4.5).
After their night of magical thinking, the lovers are unable to distinguish imagination from reality, dream from memory. But determining the truth of events is unimportant; it’s the truth of their effects that matters. The change that touched the lovers by night is so palpable by morning that Theseus overturns law and directs them to marry. The lovers’ minds “transfigured so together” best show the virtue of their union and their potential for lasting joy (5.1).
Among the many joys of Midsummer is the way imagination is converted from a private experience to a shared one. How better to demonstrate this than with a troupe of players—in this production, the drama club of a girls’ school? The troupe works hard to transfigure their imaginations and their audiences’. But they underestimate us. The humor in their anticipation of “the ladies’” responses underscores the artist/audience collaboration that, in the theater, is always in play.
Performance and transformation are linked hilariously in Bottom. But I wager her physical “translation” takes a backseat to the spiritual. Her parody of St. Paul marks a divine revelation: “The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen…nor his heart to report what my dream was” (4.1). Soon Bottom changes her tune: her “most rare vision” will be seen and heard and reported: St. Paul’s text won’t do it, but Peter Quince’s will. Midsummer presents theater as a site of revelation and transformation, of imagination, perception, passion. It’s a place where a man may get “six pence a day for playing” (4.2)