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As the title suggests, dreams are an important theme in A Midsummer Night’s Dream; they are linked to the bizarre, magical mishaps in the forest. Hippolyta’s first words in the play evidence the prevalence of dreams (“Four days will quickly steep themselves in night, / Four nights will quickly dream away the time”), and various characters mention dreams throughout (I.i.7–8). The theme of dreaming recurs predominantly when characters attempt to explain bizarre events in which these characters are involved: “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 t’expound this dream,” Bottom says, unable to fathom the magical happenings that have affected him as anything but the result of slumber.
Shakespeare is also interested in the actual workings of dreams, in how events occur without explanation, time loses its normal sense of flow, and the impossible occurs as a matter of course; he seeks to recreate this environment in the play through the intervention of the fairies in the magical forest. At the end of the play, Puck extends the idea of dreams to the audience members themselves, saying that, if they have been offended by the play, they should remember it as nothing more than a dream. This sense of illusion and gauzy fragility is crucial to the atmosphere of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as it helps render the play a fantastical experience rather than a heavy drama.
After their surreal night of magic and mayhem in the forest, both the lovers and Bottom describe what happened to them as a “dream.” They use the word “dream” to describe their experiences, because they wouldn’t otherwise be able to understand the bizarre and irrational things that they remember happening to them in the forest. By calling their experiences dreams, Bottom and the lovers allow those experiences to exist as they are, without need for explanation or understanding. As Bottom says: “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 t’expound this dream”(IV.i.200-201). In a famous speech near the end of the play, Duke Theseus brushes off the lovers’ tale of their night in the forest, and goes so far as to condemn the imagination of all lovers, madmen, and poets as full of illusion and untruths. But Theseus’s argument overlooks that it is reason, as set down in the law of Athens, that caused all the problems to begin with. And it was the “dream” within the forest that solved those problems. Through this contrast, the play seems to be suggesting that dreams and imagination are as useful as reason, and can sometimes create truths that transcend reason’s limits.