Summary and Analysis
Act IV: Scene 1
Bottom is enjoying his sojourn in Titania's bower: Peaseblossom amiably scratches his head, while Cobweb goes off in search of honey for him. As Bottom sleeps in Titania's arms, Oberon walks in. Feeling pity for Titania's pitiful love for this ass, Oberon squeezes an herb on her eyes to release her from the spell. Titania awakens, telling Oberon about her strange dream of being in love with an ass. Oberon has Puck remove the ass' head from Bottom. Now that Oberon has won the Indian boy from Titania, he is willing to forget their argument, and the two, reunited, dance off together so they can bless Theseus' marriage.
Theseus, Hippolyta, and Egeus are walking through the woods when Theseus suddenly spies the sleeping lovers. Egeus recognizes them but wonders how they ended up together because Demetrius and Lysander are enemies. Theseus imagines they woke early to observe the rite of May and remembers this is the day Hermia needs to make a choice about her future. When the lovers are awakened, Demetrius confesses that he now loves Helena. No one really understands what has happened. Theseus decides the lovers should be married along with him and Hippolyta.
As the lovers return to the palace, the scene shifts to Bottom. Just awakening from his dream, Bottom declares he'll have Quince write a ballad about it, called "Bottom's Dream," because it has no bottom.
Titania and Bottom continue to be entertaining because of the discrepancy in their modes of thinking, a difference that could be ascribed not only to their species (fairy versus human), but also to their classes. When Titania offers Bottom the soothing music provided by her fairies, he prefers the more rustic entertainment of the "tongs and the bones." When she offers him whatever food he desires, he chooses the simple fare of oats and hay. When he prosaically feels an "exposition" of sleep coming on, a malapropism for "disposition," she poetically promises to "entwist" him, much as the female ivy "[e]nrings" the barky elm. While the contrast between these two lovers contributes to the comedy of the play, it also serves Shakespeare's purpose of reminding us that love is blind and possibly deaf. Just like this mismatched couple, love often pairs seemingly inappropriate people.
Often played by the same actor, the two rulers in the play, Oberon and Theseus, both insist on getting their way, but they also have a benevolent side. Theseus, for example, offered Hermia the opportunity of living in a nunnery if she didn't marry Demetrius, unlike her father, who offered her only death. Thus, Theseus insists she follow her father's rules yet also offers a more lenient, more appropriate punishment. Similarly, Oberon shows his compassion for humanity by helping Helena when she is tormented by Demetrius. He also has goodwill for Titania, despite their fighting. Although Oberon initially enjoyed her inappropriate love for Bottom, he soon begins to pity Titania. Although he self-servingly releases her from the love spell only after he has won the Indian boy, Oberon seems genuinely pleased when he and Titania are reunited.
Egeus, on the other hand, seems to be an unacceptable model of authority; while he earlier was willing to send his daughter to death because of her refusal to marry the man he has seemingly arbitrarily chosen for her, here he is equally anxious to condemn Lysander to death for his disobedience. For Egeus, life is a game, and he is angry primarily because the lovers have "defeated him." Hatred and winning are more important to him than love. Therefore, Theseus overrules him, demanding not death from Lysander, but marriage — Theseus, like Oberon, participates in the triumph of love within the play.
A climax has been reached in the play's action, and it now moves toward a happy ending. Like the moon, the play has come full circle, so a new round can begin. This fresh round commences with a reunion of Titania and Oberon, who will spread prosperity and faith to all of the lovers in the play. The next accord is discovered when Theseus and Hippolyta find the four lovers sleeping in the woods.
Before the lovers are discovered, however, the interchange between Theseus and Hippolyta uses the imagery of hunting. The musical baying of Theseus' dogs competes for dominance with the music of Titania and Oberon's fairies, creating a "musical confusion" (109). Hippolyta has also come full circle; although the other characters remember her feats as a warrior, the opening scene of the play presented her as passive, almost silent. Here she reminisces with Theseus about her feats with Hercules and Cadmus, reminding him of her past feats as a hunter. The disjunction between these stories of war and the sight of the four lovers asleep in their bower seems jarring.
Why would Shakespeare move so quickly from a discussion of a violent hunt to an image of innocent love? Remember that the surface of this seemingly romantic play has been riddled with violence, from Egeus' wish to have his daughter killed for disobedience to Demetrius' promise to rape Helena if she did not stop pursuing him. Even Helena's images of taking the masculine role of Apollo carried a trace of rape and violation, as they evoked Apollo's violent attempt on Daphne's innocence. In some sense, the play seems to suggest that love and violence are closely aligned; as a pursuit, marriage is a game of domination and control. For example, Theseus and Hippolyta's marriage is not based on an innocent game of romance; instead, she is a prisoner of war, the quarry Theseus won with his sword.
In this play, humanity's animal nature is never far from sight — Bottom is transformed into an animal, or perhaps his true self is simply allowed to shine through. Even Titania, a seemingly regal and poetic creature, has an animal side, as shown by her love affair with Bottom. In suggesting that the lovers have come to the woods to celebrate the rites of May (a ritual of sex and fertility), Theseus seems to suggest the often purifying effects of such rituals; by allowing the lovers to access their animal sides, their anger and jealousy have been cleansed, and they can now sleep harmoniously side by side.
Waking from their dream in the woods, the lovers cannot remember how they ended up together. Lysander cannot say where he is, showing the inadequacy of language to capture the magical experiences of the woods, just as Demetrius cannot understand what power melted his love for Hermia. Like love itself, the events of the previous evening occurred in a magical zone beyond the realm of human speech or of human understanding. Although Oberon told Puck to erase all their memories of the previous evening, the lovers retain some recollection of their night in the forest. And the love spell is never removed from Demetrius' eyes, emphasizing that the walls separating reality and imagination, sleep and waking mesh to create a new version of reality. Demetrius is the sole character in the play who is punished, so it seems that hard-heartedness is the only unacceptable fault. The true lovers are rewarded, including Helena, who gets her man.
In describing his newly rekindled love for Helena, Demetrius uses much the same language Lysander used in Act III, Scene 1, again emphasizing the similarities between the two lovers. Like Lysander, Demetrius sees his love for Hermia as a remnant of childhood, an "idle gaud" he must discard as he enters adulthood. Similarly, his love for Helena resides primarily in his eyes, of which she is the "object and pleasure" (169). He adds the imagery of disease to Lysander's formula: His love of Hermia was a sickness that caused him to lose his appetite for his natural food. Now his true appetite, Helena, has been regained. His language shows the hunger, the lust, that underlies and accompanies romantic relationships. Yet Helena is aware of the discrepancy in Demetrius' character, claiming he is her own, but not her own. Love is so much like a dream that she cannot believe in its reality, nor can any of the other lovers.
Waking from his adventures in the fairy realm, Bottom also has trouble differentiating reality and illusion. In a moment of wisdom, Bottom realizes that his dream is past the "wit of man to say what dream it was" (204); as the lovers discovered earlier in this scene, dreams and visions are often untellable. Indeed, Bottom believes men are asses if they try to explain this dream — not every event of life is amenable to rational explanation, and some things exist most fully in the realm of the imagination. According to Bottom, such visionary experiences cannot be comprehended by any of the human senses: not eyes, not ears, not hands, not tongues, not hearts. Only art, literature, can capture these magical, visionary experiences, so Bottom will have Peter Quince write a ballad about his night with the fairies.
Bottom decides to title this piece "Bottom's Dream" because it has no bottom — all literature and art are bottomless, in that their meaning cannot be quantified, cannot be understood solely through the mechanisms of reason or logic. Instead, they must be experienced, must be felt, an interchange that happens between a reader and a text. Although literary critics or other writers may try to guide a reader's responses to a text, each reader must create his or her own vision, limited only by imagination. And an individual's reading of a text will change with the reader's experience. Your first reading of A Midsummer Night's Dream will not be the same as your twentieth, because your life and circumstances will influence what you notice and how you interpret the play. Thus, the possible interpretations of any piece of literature are infinite and, therefore, bottomless.
The scene ends not only with this vision of infinity, but also with a mystery. In his final line, Bottom exclaims that he will sing his ballad "at her death," but who is this "her"? Is Bottom referring to Titania? To Elizabeth? We don't know. Again, a gap exists in the text in which the reader must position him- or herself to create a unique reading of the play.
coy (2) caress.
neaf (16) fist.
tong & bones (25) instruments for rustic music.
peck of provender (27) one-quarter bushel of grain.
bottle of hay (28) bundle of hay.
exposition of (33) Bottom's malapropism for "disposition to."
vaward (100) vanguard.
Cadmus (107) a Phoenician prince and founder of Thebes: he killed a dragon and sowed its teeth, from which many armed men rose, fighting each other, until only five were left to help him build the city.
hounds of Sparta (109) dogs famous for their hunting skill.
Thessalian (117) inhabitant of Thessaly, a region of E Greece, between the Pindus Mountains and the Aegean Sea.
St. Valentine (134) birds were supposed to choose mates on St. Valentine's Day.
idle gaud (162) useless trinket.
patched (202) wearing motley (many-colored garments).