Summary and Analysis
The play has come full circle, and the cast has now returned to the palace where Theseus and Hippolyta discuss the strange tale the lovers have told them about the events of the previous evening. The joyous lovers enter, and Theseus decides it is time to plan the festivities for the evening. Of all the possible performances, the play "Pyramus and Thisbe" turns out to be the most promising. Theseus is intrigued by the paradoxical summary of the play, which suggests it is both merry and tragical, tedious and brief. Philostrate tries to dissuade Theseus from choosing this play, but Theseus thinks its simplicity will be refreshing.
In the remainder of the scene, the players present "Pyramus and Thisbe," accompanied by the lovers' critical commentary. Hippolyta is disgusted by this pathetic acting, but Theseus argues that even the best actors create only a brief illusion; the worst must be assisted by an imaginative audience. Following the performance, Bottom arises from the dead, asking Theseus if he'd like to hear an epilogue or watch a rustic dance. Theseus opts for the dance, having lost patience with the players' acting.
The play concludes with three epilogues. The first is Puck's poetic monologue, delivered while he sweeps up the stage. Oberon and Titania offer their blessing on the house and on the lovers' future children. The play ends with Puck's final speech, in which he apologizes for the weakness of the performance and promises that the next production will be better.
After hearing the report of the lovers about their night in the woods, Hippolyta believes that something truly "strange" has occurred. Theseus accepts that the stories are strange but doesn't think they are true. He famously creates a connection between the imaginations of lovers, lunatics, and poets: All three see beyond the limitation of "cool reason"; all are beset by fantasies. While the lunatic's imagination makes heaven into a hell, the lover's shapes beauty in the ugliest face. The poet, meanwhile, creates entire worlds from the "airy nothing" of imagination. In Theseus' opinion, all of the fantasies lack the stamp of truth, but Hippolyta is not convinced. Because all of the lovers tell the same story, she believes their tale, despite its seemingly fantastical attributes. Theseus is primarily the voice of reason, logic, law in the text, while Hippolyta valorizes the fantastic and imaginary as equally valid versions of the truth.
Yet Theseus also has a penchant for the absurd. He chooses the play of "Pyramus and Thisbe" as the entertainment for the post-wedding festivities because of its paradoxical nature. As discussed earlier, the play is billed as "tedious brief" and also "tragical mirth." Theseus wonders about this discordant assortment of adjectives, calling the play "hot ice" and "wondrous strange snow." Philostrate, the Master of Revels, warns Theseus that the play is "nothing," but even such bottomless entertainments, as "Bottom's Dream" showed, are something. Theseus is particularly impressed that the play will be performed by working-class actors. For him, the simpleness and sincerity of their efforts make nothing into something; the content is less important than the intentions of the actors.
Another rift exists here between Theseus and Hippolyta. While he feels that the actors' intentions are key, she does not think sincerity can make up for these amateur actors' lack of talent. Theseus disagrees, arguing that it is the audience's duty to recognize the actors' intentions. Is Theseus being kindhearted and egalitarian here or is he patronizing these lower-class actors? This is a question for the reader to answer, based on the details presented in the play, together with his or her experience of the world. Some readers might believe he is patronizing both the amateur actors and his new bride.
The Prologue of the play-within-the-play justifies Philostrate's lukewarm recommendation. Throughout this drama, Shakespeare has panned the acting crew's misuse of the English language, and here Quince's incorrect punctuation adds humor. For example, his opening line, "If we offend, it is with our good will," suggests the actors are intentionally offending their audience. Although he would like to tell the audience that he and the other actors plan to please the court, his Prologue suggests just the opposite meaning. Quince's errors should remind all writers of the importance of good grammar and punctuation; without them, meaning becomes twisted, even, as in this case, comically reversed. Here is a correctly punctuated version of the speech that more accurately captures Quince's intentions:
If we offend, it is with our good will
That you should think we come, not to offend,
But with good will to show our simple skill —
That is the true beginning of our end.
Consider then we come — but in despite
We do not come — as minding to content you.
Our true intent is all for your delight:
We are not here that you should here repent you
The actors are at hand and, by their show,
You shall know all that you are like to know.
As Lysander says, it isn't enough to speak; one must also speak correctly, a good lesson for all readers of this drama. For Hippolyta, Quince sounds like a child trying to play a recorder, and even Theseus recognizes the disorder in Quince's language.
The play provides numerous lessons for writers. For example, the comedy of Pyramus' opening speech lies in the overabundance of "O"s and "alack"s that Bottom adds to the text. While Bottom hopes this poetical language will intensify the seriousness of his speech, its excess adds comedy rather than tragedy. Rather than adding meaning, such shallow poetical devices detract from the play by drawing attention to themselves rather than highlighting the tragedy of Pyramus' plight. Bottom's improvisation also shows would-be screenwriters that piles of adjectives detract from meaning; for example, Bottom's, "O wall, O sweet and lovely wall," seems merely ridiculous. Simple, unadorned language would have more impact.
As expected, the play is absurdly comical, and the humor is intensified by the audience's interactions with the cast. After Snout explains his role as a wall, Theseus sincerely wonders if "lime and hair," the ingredients that make a wall, could ever speak better, and Demetrius claims Snout to be the wittiest wall he has ever heard. Bottom's matter-of-fact approach to life is apparent once again as he converses with Theseus during the play. When Theseus suggests that the wall should curse, Bottom replies that it shouldn't. Bottom is unable to recognize the joke in Theseus' statement because he believes the audience is completely transported by the play. Despite his criticism of the play, Theseus argues that the best actors are mere shadows, as are the worst, if the audience's imagination guides them. Again, he feels the audience should recognize the actors' intentions, rather than focus entirely on their production. In a final crack at the play, Theseus believes the ending would have been improved if Pyramus had hanged himself with Thisbe's garter, but, overall, the play was entertaining — even though the drama was obviously uncouth, it still "beguil'd / The heavy gait of night."
The play ends by juxtaposing three epilogues with very different moods. From the comedy of Pyramus and Thisbe, the scene shifts to Puck's first, fairly ominous epilogue. As he sweeps away the stage, Puck invokes the dangerous creatures of the night: roaring lions, howling wolves, and graveyard spirits. Day is juxtaposed with night, marriage with death. But the play doesn't end here. Oberon reinvokes the light, asking the "drowsy fire" to glimmer throughout the house. While Puck's fairies were night creatures, "[f]ollowing darkness like a dream," Oberon's are light as birds, dancing and singing as they "tripplingly" follow him. Like the ever-changing moon, the play's moods and emotions keep shifting, emphasizing life's multidimensionality. Puck and Oberon invoke different versions of the nighttime world, and both exist, both are relevant. While Puck provides a memento mori, reminding the audience that death is howling just around the corner, Oberon brings joy and blessing into our lives for as long as they last. In his blessing for the newlyweds, Oberon offers them long-lasting love and exorcises any blots of nature that could desecrate their children. With peace and safety, he consecrates the palace itself.
Oberon's final speech seems an apt place to end the play, especially if it was, indeed, performed for a wedding celebration, but Shakespeare does not stop here. Significantly the final words of the play do not belong to the ruler of the fairy realm, but to the master of misrule, the consummate actor and comedian, Puck. In some sense, Puck, with his ability to translate himself into any character, with his skill in creating performances that seem all too real to their human audiences, could be seen as a mascot of the theater. Therefore, his final words are an apology for the play itself. Like the lovers in the play, the audience of the Dream has also been treated to a vision. If this performance has not met the audience's expectations, the actors will practice more and improve their work.
brow of Egypt (11) face of a gypsy.
abridgement (39) pastime.
Bacchanals (48) worshippers of Bacchus, the god of wine and revelry.
Thracian (49) belonging to an ancient region in the E Balkan Peninsula.
conn'd (80) to peruse carefully; to study; fix in the memory.
stand upon points (118) pay attention to details.
hight (138) named; called.
Limander, Helen (190, 191) blunders for the lovers Hero and Leander; Leander swims the Hellespont from Abydos every night to be with her; when he drowns in a storm, Hero throws herself into the sea.
Shafalus and Procrus (192) blunders for "Cephalus" and "Procris," famous lovers.
'tide (197) betide; happen.
Furies (266) the three terrible female spirits with snaky hair (Alecto, Tisiphone, and Megaera) who punish the doers of unavenged crimes.
thread and thrum (268) everything, both good and bad.
mote (299) a speck of dust or other tiny particle.
videlicet (303) that is, namely.
Sisters Three (316) the Fates, the three goddesses who control human destiny and life.
imbrue (324) stain.
Bergomask dance (332) a rustic dance, named for Bergamo (a province ridiculed for its rusticity).
wasted brands (351) burned-out logs.
triple Hecate's team (360) Hecate, a goddess of the moon (Luna), earth (Diana), and underground realm of the dead (Hecate), later regarded as the goddess of sorcery and witchcraft.