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In Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, it is during Act IV that the four “lovers” awaken along the boundary of the woods in which they spent the prior evening and attempt to explain and understand the previous night’s happenings. This particular moment in the play exemplifies a transcendental moment, where we as the audience observe the youths trying to make sense of their experiences despite their nonsensical nature. It is in this process that the four characters make comment that lead us to consider further why Shakespeare has juxtaposed the two worlds, what their significance is in relation to each other, why they appear so drastically “apart” (yet physically border each other), and why he has chosen to merge them in the way that he has: by thrusting the young men and women of Athens into chaos as a result of otherworldly fairy magic.
Because this play works in such a dividing way, it is only sensible that to capture the lovers’ true, natural reactions they must physically straddle both worlds. They do so mentally as well, as they awaken to what they perceive as reality yet remain perplexed by the events that have occurred in the recent hours in the night world. For example, Demetrius had been awake and raging for blood over his lust but but awakes transformed – claiming to have found reason, but not knowing how. He says, “My good lord, I know not by what power— / But by some power it is—my love to Hermia, / Melted as the snow, seems to me now / As the remembrance of an idle gaud” (IV.i.167-170). Demetrius’s attempt to explain himself clearly falls short by way of Athenian reason, yet he speaks perfectly rationally as far as we, the audience, know. He does not know the power that has changed him, and the explanation that fairies did it would not be useful to him anyway because it lacks logical sense.
We are also met with a number of comments that imply a half-awake, half-sleeping (or half-dreaming) consciousness. Hermia says, “Methinks I see thing with parted eye, / When everything seems double” (IV.i.191-192). Helena’s response is, “And I have found Demetrius like a jewel, / Mine own, and not mine own” (IV.i.193-194). Demetrius then concludes this with “Are you sure that we are awake? It seems to me / That yet we sleep, we dream” (195-196). Earlier, Lysander uses the phrase “Half sleep, half waking” (IV.i.150). In these statements, the lovers share an experience of uncertainty and double consciousness. They simultaneously understand, in some capacity, that they have just encountered some strange sequence of events, yet also that they are awake in the “real world” which does not allow for any of those events to occur. Thus they descend into rationalization—that these events were merely a dream—and return to the castle. Here, the lovers do not exercise the wisdom we saw Demetrius channel when he admitted ignorance as to why he felt as he did toward Helena. The only character that does this regarding the night world is Bottom, later on. The “split” they encounter directly parallels the split between the two worlds and the inability to bridge them, yet in this moment in the play they are as close as they can ever be to doing so as humans.
The shared nature of this experience is further notable. The characters in this brief part of the scene all remark that they feel the same way about what has happened, yet fail to collaborate enough to reach the truth. It will be mentioned again, but perhaps it is so that no amount of discussion or collaboration, as Demetrius will later suggest as they return to the castle, can bring the lovers to truly understand what has happened. As Demetrius remarks, “These things seem small and undistinguishable, / Like far-off mountains turned into clouds” (IV.i.190-191). Of course one cannot touch clouds, so these distant mirages will remain just that even in their unified attempt to discover the truth, just as in the greater view of the play, it may not be possible for the lovers to truly grasp the truth about other ideas (love, for example) no matter how hard they struggle.
As they depart, Demetrius suggests that “by the way let us recount our dreams” (IV.i.202) as though the lovers plan to carry with them the events of the night and continue to investigate them, however they have been completely unable to do so since they exited the woods. It is this moment that can transition us to understanding this scene in the larger context of the play. The characters cannot apply the “rules” of one world to the other. Athenian law is invalid in the wood and its visitors lay in the hands of the fairies. The effects of the fairy magic cease by day, forcing a return to normalcy. It is impossible for the lovers to ever come to terms with what has actually happened because now they fully reside in the Athenian world, having lost any attempt at grasping the tangible events of the night the moment they departed from the wood’s edge. Later the lovers have discarded the events as dreams completely, and only Hippolyta lends any true meaning to the dreams. As mentioned earlier, she too demonstrates wisdom and understanding by saying that their story “grows to something of great constancy” (V.i.27), as though it may not be purely coincidence that all of the lovers have shared identical dreams on the same night.
The play also speaks of wisdom and logic, which, as explained earlier, the lovers exercise only on rare occasions. The “love” the lovers speak of is often not so much love, but rather lust or infatuation. It is not until they have been processed through the machine that is the forest and its trials can they begin to understand love. Of course, Shakespeare understands that in real life one will not actually experience the forest, yet it exists as a placeholder for the flurries of emotion, lust, and romance that will undoubtedly contend with in their youth as they too try to reach wisdom and the true meaning of love. The characters in A Midsummer Night’s Dream that enter the forest must cope with the whirlwind of emotions in a single evening, so this amplifies our understanding of and experience with these themes. Yet, when the lovers finally awaken, it is worth questioning whether they have actually learned anything. They do return to the castle, they are married, yet the dreams are dismissed and given only a passing thought by Hippolyta.
This moment in Act IV is unique in the play. It is the only moment where the lovers are capable of comprehending both worlds at the same time. It is also the only moment where the lovers exercise wisdom and demonstrate that they may begin to understand the “love” that they felt so strongly about in Act I. The entirety of the experience and the “double vision” that accompanies it is a direct parallel to Shakespeare’s establishment of the two worlds and the stark contrast between them. Throughout the play we can relate scenes back to this one – where the lovers exist on two planes at once, then leave one forever.
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