Major Symbols and Motifs
Explore the different symbols and motifs within William Shakespeare's comedic play, A Midsummer Night's Dream. Symbols and motifs are key to understanding A Midsummer Night's Dream and identifying Shakespeare's social and political commentary.
The dominant imagery in A Midsummer Night's Dream revolves around the moon and moonlight. The word moon occurs three times in the play's first nine lines of the play, the last of these three references in a most striking visual image: "the moon, like to a silver bow / New bent in heaven." One reason for repeating such images is to create the atmosphere of night.
Shakespeare's plays were mostly performed by daylight, and he had to create the idea of darkness or half-light in the imagination of his audience — there where no lights to turn off or to dim. In addition, these repeated moon references work upon the audience by creating a dreamlike atmosphere. Familiar things look different by moonlight; they are seen quite literally in a different light.
The moon itself is also a reminder of the passage of time, and that all things — like its phases — must change. The more educated people in Shakespeare's audience would have also understood the mythological significance of the moon. The moon-goddesses Luna and Diana were associated with chastity on the one hand and fertility on the other; two qualities that are united in faithful marriage, which the play celebrates.
Animal images also appear many times in the play, reminding us of the wildness of the woods in which most of the play's action takes place, where an unaccompanied female would be at "the mercy of wild beasts" in a setting where "the wolf behowls the moon." But this is a comedy; these dangers are not really threatening. The animal references are stylized and conventional. The only physical animals encountered by the characters (apart from Starveling's dog) are the less-than-half-ass Nick Bottom and the totally artificial Lion played by Snug.
The animal references are included in the many images of the natural world that are associated with the fairy kingdom. These details emphasize the pretty delicacy of the fairies themselves and make the wood seem more real in the imagination of the audience. Oberon's "I know a bank" speech in Act II, Scene I is just one example of this.
A Midsummer Night's Dream also contains many references to seeing, eyes, and eyesight. These images serve a double purpose. The repetition reminds the audience of the difference between how things look and what they are, (reinforcing the theme of appearance vs. reality), and that love is blind and beauty is in the eye of the beholder.