Arts & Tradition

Something for Summer Reading: ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ by William Shakespeare

BY Sean Fitzpatrick TIMEJune 22, 2022 PRINT

Summer is not only a season that people love, but it is also a season when people fall in love. Warm temperatures encourage warm temperaments, and summer love is a thrill that most have some happy memory of, memories that are often like dreams.

What person does not look back on the laughing, lovesick capers of their youth, the days of mule-headed invincibility that gain strength in the haze of summer sun and the gaze of a beloved one, with at least some degree of fondness? The charms of adolescence are one of the most beautiful jokes of creation.

The romantic escapades that all undertake when they play the part of lover are driven by dramatic zeal. It is a zeal enflamed by a visceral, chivalric optimism that is truly charming and truly precious: the excitable lifeblood of the adolescent spirit. Though these ages, passions, and pursuits are often the silliest of life, they are exquisitely admirable in their devotion.

A Play as Miraculous as Young Love

Savoring the flings and follies of young love is the sole purpose and pleasure of William Shakespeare’s marvelous play, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Set in a faery world as magical, miraculous, and mischievous as the fleeting world of youthful affection, this romp rushes those who allow it into a dream of madcap, mythic mockery and irresistible idiot passions where “reason and love keep little company,” and neither should they at a certain age. There is a time and a place for reason, but it is not on midsummer night when all should revel with an elfish mirth.

The eager appetite for love and life racing in the heat of summer should find a way to be enjoyed, and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” offers a way. The paradoxes and parodies of the play are apparent immediately in the strange setting that draws shamelessly from both Greek and Celtic folklore with a happy dreamlike confusion, for “So quick bright things come to confusion.”

Its themes lean on Cupid’s ancient wink about the nature of love: an unreasoning “knavish lad” who is blindfolded, winged, and armed is not a sentimental image, but a disastrous image; and the play plays up the hilarious disasters of love. For if “Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind,” as custom purports, then the mind that is waylaid with love is no judge regarding what is reasonable.

And so the dream runs: The lovers in the play are madly in love and fan the flames of their heart, crying, “O me! …  you juggler! You canker-blossom! You thief of love!” making hell out of heaven and heaven out of hell.

The gods are similarly mad over their own turbulent and petulant relationships and cast their self-serving spells despite the nonsense it creates for the human characters. Yet the divine ones proclaim with perfect irony “Lord, what fools these mortals be!”

The clowns are witty and yet wise, and even in their silliness they deliver sage observations that strike closest to the heart of love and love’s larks. As Bottom lilts: “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 was.”

The play is, indeed, what it claims to be: nothing more than a sweet, strange dream. Dreamed innocently of a sultry, summer night, it is a light play about the lighter side of love and written in the lightest language of love: poetry. And poetry as only the puckish Billy Shakespeare can put it.

What person does not hold the summer days (and nights) of their young adulthood as wondrous and blissfully inconsequential as a dream? Though “the course of true love never did run smooth,” there comes a time when all turbulences are remembered tenderly, and the ridiculous rampages of love must be excused with Puck’s immortal apology:

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 than a dream.

Sean Fitzpatrick serves on the faculty of Gregory the Great Academy, a boarding school in Elmhurst, Pa., where he teaches humanities. His writings on education, literature, and culture have appeared in a number of journals, including Crisis Magazine, Catholic Exchange, and the Imaginative Conservative.
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