One of the play’s main themes is the difference between perception and reality. The idea that things are not necessarily what they seem to be is at the heart of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and in the very title itself. “Reality is merely an illusion, although a very persistent one.” These words were spoken by Albert Einstein who, among the many other things he thought about, considered the very thin line between what we see and feel and what is real.
Many great thinkers have pondered the relationship between the senses and reality. How much of the world truly exists and how much of it is only what is in one’s mind? Among these thinkers was one particular writer named William Shakespeare. A man who enjoyed pointing out the gullibility of mankind, sometimes tragically and sometimes playfully, wrote a masterpiece of theater exploring that very concept. A Midsummer Night’s Dream directly confronts the separation between reality and what one perceives to be real.
This is examined in Titania’s interactions with Nick Bottom, in the adventures of the Athenian lovers, and, most famously, in Puck’s closing monologue. It is in this way that Shakespeare forces us to think: “What is reality?” If anything shows how perception and reality can sometimes fail to coincide it is the situation between Titania and Nick Bottom. The reality of the situation is that Nick wasn’t a highly attractive man to begin with, and has now been given an ass’ head. Titania has been drugged to believe that she is madly in love with this man, under Oberon’s orders. Here is the tricky question hidden in this situation: “What is love?” Love is a feeling. Feelings are another type of perception, a type that are impossible to ground in physical reality. One cannot say that Titania’s love is fake, though it may be. The very flower used to fill the fairy queen with this love was supposed to have been hit with one of Cupid’s arrow, the arrows which cause true love.
It cannot be argued that the love is not true, but it is not of her free will. Does this make the love unreal? Surely Titania perceives it to be real but what makes love or any emotion truly real? This situation also does a good deal to show how one’s perception of reality can be altered by a powerful feeling like love. Titania is suddenly completely in love with him, with his body, his voice, and everything. Surely she would not normally be attracted to these features but it can be almost universally agreed upon that love can alter one’s perception of things. Nick Bottom himself said that”reason and love keep little company.” Given the knowledge that something like emotion can alter one’s perception, who can say that reality is truly real? The Athenian’s love situations show that they had little grasp of reality to begin with, making them all the more susceptible toward the meddling of the fairies, which is a true test of reality versus perception.
They claim to be each equal to each other in looks, personality and strength. Even their names, Helena and Hermia are quite similar. They are nearly indistinguishable in character and mannerisms and for good reason. It is to show how powerfully love can alter the perception of a person. For Hermia, there can be no comparison between Lysander and Demetrius. This is all mixed up when the fairies become involved. Hermia, previously loved by both men, suddenly finds herself scorned and ignored. Likewise, Helena, previously ignored by both men suddenly becomes the supreme object of their desire. What is worse is that she perceives this to be nothing but a cruel joke. All of this is caused by the same flower-struck by cupid’s arrow-that had equally altered Titania’s thoughts on Nick Bottom. This begs to question, are feelings caused by substances real? There are feelings of happiness, euphoria, relaxation, and any number of things that can be caused by mind altering drugs but can these feelings be described as being real? Some would argue not, but is the argument truly that simple?
What are feelings when boiled down to a science? They are no more than chemical reactions in the mind. Also, what about mood stabilizing drugs given to those depressed or suffering from bipolar disorder? Are the new feelings of well being and peace also not real? The effect of the flower is similar. Who can say how much of what is felt and what is real and how much is brought out by the flower? What of the sentiments that were brought to light by the fairy’s influence? The feelings of jealousy and distrust that were brought up in Helena were quite obviously always somewhat present so are these feelings unreal or merely highlighted by the actions of the fairies? These are all a matter of perception versus reality-something that Shakespeare clearly wanted us to think about.
The final and most blunt question on reality is of course, the ending speech by Puck. “If we shadows have offended, think but this, and all is mended, that you have but slumbered here while these visions did appear. And this weak and idle theme, no more yielding than a dream.” To start there is calling the actors all shadows, something that questions how real they truly are. Not only are they playing roles and pretending to be other people, but on top of that, how real are they or anyone really? “Think but this and all is mended” simply brings to light how easy it is to alter one’s perception of things. It’s as simple as changing how you want to see things.
Then there is the big question, what is the difference between reality and a dream? If one’s perceptions are so easily changed, what is the difference between dreaming and reality? Shakespeare was a master of writing. It is the goal of any artist to change how a person feels and views things. Shakespeare takes his readers and watchers a step further by questioning feelings and perception altogether. In showing how love can so powerfully alter perceptions in Titania and Nick’s events, by showing how frequently changing the sentiments of the Athenians were, and by openly questioning how real reality is in Puck’s speech, Shakespeare challenges us to question how much of what people see and feel is real. How much of what people see and feel can simply be written off as a “Midsummer Night’s Dream.”