Despite what many modern critics say, Shakespeare's plays are written from a profoundly Christian perspective. This site presents literary criticism demonstrating that. To submit your essay for publication (arguing either for or against this position), email us - kevin @

"A Midsummer Night's Dream" - the Problem

The Problem - Why is there an Act Five after the Plot is Resloved?

A Midsummer Night’s Dream
The Problem
The problem in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is that Hermia and Lysander are in love, but their love is blocked by Hermia’s father Egeus.  Hermia’s father approves of Demetrius (who loves Hermia, although Hermia does not love him) and demands that Hermia marry Demetrius and not Lysander.  Lysander tells King Theseus us that he is just as worthy of Hermia’s hand as is Demetrius:
I am, my Lord, as well derived as he,
As well possessed.  My love is more than his,
My fortunes every way as fairly ranked, 
If not with vantage, as Demetrius’.

Meanwhile, Hermia’s childhood friend Helena loves Demetrius, and Demetrius at one time loved Helena, but no longer.  Egeus insists that Hermia marry Demetrius; Hermia asks Theseus what her options are, and Theseus tells her bluntly:
Either to die the death or to abjure
Forever the society of men.

He gives Hermia four days to make up her mind to agree with her father and marry Demetrius or suffer the consequences:
Or else the law of Athens yields you up
(Which by no means we may extenuate).

Theseus himself is getting married in four days to Hippolyta, and as part of the festivities a group of tradesmen (including Bottom the weaver) are preparing a play to present the night of the wedding.

The Solution
Lysander and Hermia conspire to run off to the Lysander’s aunt (who lives “remote seven leagues” from Athens, and beyond the jurisdiction of the harsh Athenian law).  The aunt is a dowager and treats Lysander as her son. The first step in this journey is to escape into the forest outside Athens. They tell Helena of their plan. They escape to the forest.  Helena tells Demetrius of the plan and Demetrius follows them to the forest, followed, in turn, by Helena. Bottom and his fellow tradesmen also go to the forest to practice their play.
Once in the forest, the four are caught up in the activities of the fairy king Oberon and his right-hand man Robin Goodfellow (also known as Puck).  Oberon wants a changeling child that his queen Titania has taken from an Indian King. Titania refuses to give the child to Oberon. Oberon creates a magic potion which causes whoever is treated to love the first thing he sees upon awakening.  Oberon treats Titania with the potion, which causes her to fall in love with Bottom (who has, apparently as a prank, been given an ass’s head by Puck).
Oberon overhears a conversation between Demetrius and Helena and tells Puck to treat Demetrius with the potion as well so that Demetrius will love Helena.  Puck mistakenly treats Lysander, who then falls in love with Helena. Oberon later treats Demetrius, who also falls in love with Helena. Helena thinks (incorrectly) that Lysander and Demetrius are mocking her by claiming their love for her and their disdain for Hermia.
At the end of Act 3, Lysander, Demetrius, Helena, and Hermia all fall asleep in the same place (thanks to Puck’s handiwork), and Demetrius is treated with another magic potion which reverses the effect of the first potion.  In the first scene of Act 4, we learn that Oberon has secured the changeling child from Titania and so reverses her treatment as well.  The two sleeping couples are awakened by the wedding party (in the forest on a hunt) which includes Theseus, Hippolyta, and Egeus.
Theseus reminds Egeus that today’s the day where Hermia must decide between abandoning Lysander/marrying Demetrius, death, or “abjuring the society of men”.  The just-awoken Lysander admits that he and Hermia ran off to be married, at which point Egeus demands “I beg the law, the law upon his head” (4.1.154). Demetrius interrupts Egeus protests by explaining that he no longer loves Hermia, but instead loves Helena.  Theseus then states “Egeus, I will overbear your will” (4.1.178), doing exactly what he said he was incapable of doing in Act 1 (1.1.120). The three couples are married, and the play should end, as the archetypal three-part structure of the comedy has been accomplished: young love blocked; escape from the block; and reintegration into society with marriage.
And, of course, this leaves us with a second problem: why is there an Act 5?  What is the problem posed and solution prescribed in the play within the play, as the royals offer commentary (ala Mystery Science Theater 3000) on the play presented about Pyramus and Thisbe?
Not only do the royals offer distracting/illuminating commentary throughout the play, the players themselves several times break the “fourth wall” and comment on the play they are performing: the Prologue (5.1.126-150) tells the entire story before it begins, Snout announces “That I, one Snout by name, present a wall” (5.1.135), Bottom breaks character to correct King Theseus that the wall should not talk (5.1.181), Snug warns the ladies of the audience that he’s not really a lion (5.1.217), and Bottom finally again breaks character to tell Demetrius that Wall is departed (5.1.336).
How can we in the audience recognize the artificiality of what is transpiring in the play within the play, and not immediately apply this to the play we are watching, A Midsummer Night’s Dream?  Is the plot of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, involving a Greek legendary king, an Amazonian queen, a reversible love potion, fairies, mutable Athenian law, and a magic forest any more believable than the Pyramus and Thisbe story?  What of the common workman, the weaver Bottom, being given an ass’s head and then doted on by the fairy queen? Should we not be making the same derisive/insightful comments on the play that the royals do about Pyramus and Thisbe?  Shouldn’t Theseus, Hippolyta, Demetrius, Lysander, Hermia, and Helena break character as the lion, the wall, and of course Pyramus/Bottom do throughout the play with a play, and as Puck does at the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream?
If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber'd here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend:
if you pardon, we will mend:
And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearned luck
Now to 'scape the serpent's tongue,
We will make amends ere long;
Else the Puck a liar call;
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.

Shakespeare gives us a hint about how we should think about this.  In the play within the play in the space of a few lines, there are two references to the larger play of A Midsummer Night’s Dream:
I see a voice: now will I to the chink,
To spy an I can hear my Thisbe’s face. Thisbe!
My love thou art, my love I think.
Think what thou wilt, I am thy lover's grace;
And, like Limander, am I trusty still.
And I like Helen, till the Fates me kill.

Bottom refers to “Limander” which is glossed as the famous lover in Greek myth Leander, but which also sounds a lot like “Lysander”, and Flute refers to Helen, the famous Greek beauty, but this sounds a lot like Helena.  The play-within-the-play is referring to the play it is in.
In addition, Bottom says he sees a voice and can hear Thisbe’s face.  Where else in the play does Bottom have this sort of synesthesia?  It is in Act 4, Scene 1, where Bottom awakens and struggles to understand why he, an ass, has been doted upon by an immortal Fairy Queen.
I have had a most rare
vision. I have had a dream, past the wit of man to
say what dream it was: man is but an ass, if he go
about to expound this dream. Methought I was--there
is no man can tell what. Methought I was,--and
methought I had,--but man is but a patched fool, if
he will offer to say what methought I had. The eye
of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not
seen, man's hand is not able to taste, his tongue
to conceive, nor his heart to report, what my dream

Bottom almost (but not quite) quotes St. Paul.  Is the point here that what he says is a pale imitation of what St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 2:9-10, just as A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a pale imitation of the reality of the Christian story?  St. Paul explains to the hedonistic, promiscuous, worldly Greeks of Corinth how it was that they came to be saved by Jesus, not through “sublimity of words or of wisdom” but by the power of the Spirit: 
But as it is written: “What eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, and what has not entered the human heart, what God has prepared for those who love him, this God revealed to us through the spirit.”

Just as Bottom is quoting scripture, Paul himself is quoting Scripture (Isaiah 64,3).  Bottom, an ass and representative of all humanity, has been loved and doted upon by a Fairy Queen.  The Corinthians, asses and representative of all humanity, have been loved and doted upon by God. Unlike the situation in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, however, the Fairy Queen’s love does not go away like melted snow, and salvation is real.  
Pyramus and Thisbe is a story.  A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a play.  Reality and the greatest story ever told is not a play: it really happened, even though, as Paul says, we do not know this by “sublimity of words or of wisdom”, but by the divine intervention of the spirit.