Written by Joaquin Gonzalez
The city of Athens, located in modern day Greece, and the neighboring forest around it are the primary settings for Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In the class performance, however, only the first scene has the characters located within the city of Athens whereas the remainder of the play takes place within the forest setting. The reason for this is due to the fact that the locations make a very important difference in the plot and they advance the story in different ways that are not apparent in the class performance.
In order to set the stage for this, one must understand the historical significance of Athens. Founded circa 3000 BC, Athens was built starting from the Acropolis, with the myth of being a city of wisdom as influenced by the goddess Athena. (Mark) Athens began simply and at first was not wealthy or prosperous under its Draconian law and system of governance. It would soon rise as a global power in its time, however, known for the prosperity in the law and justice system, the wealth of knowledge, and being the bedrock to many schools of study and home to many famous scholars, including Herodotus, Socrates, Hippocrates, and many, many others. The city is also known for creating the framework for democracy and having influenced the western world, withstanding the test of time. Athens has its history and successes well grounded prior to the 16th century when William Shakespeare is believed to have created the story of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Now that some background has been established, it is time to discuss one important character. In the beginning, the audience is introduced with the character of Theseus, who according to myth, was the first king of Athens after the era of Aegeus. He is one of the most famous heroes in Greek Mythology, known most popularly for his battle against the Minotaur of the Labyrinth. (Omerod) Within the play, Theseus is presented as the lord of Athens and is preparing to celebrate his marriage to his new wife, Hippolyta, the queen of the Amazons. (Corrine DeShon provides a wonderful and detailed background in our section of “The Amazons”) Theseus is the primary symbol of law and order within this play, serving as a commanding and leading figure whom most of the characters do not challenge. Additionally, he also presents a certain hierarchy that also leads to another theme in this play: patriarchal order and sexual dominance, which is seen in his relationship to Hippolyta (Act I, Scene 1), Demetrius to Helena (Act II, Scene 2), and Oberon to Titania as he continuously schemes throughout the play to take away a child she swore to protect.
So Athens is known as a city of law and Theseus is presented as the leading figure of order. Why is it important? Well, hold onto your Corinthian helmets for this next part…
Taking into account the history and the worldwide symbolic nature of the acclaimed city, Athens has a reputation for being a city of law, order and knowledge. The forest, on the other hand, contrasts that element of the city entirely with the involvement of the fairies, the magic and all the supernatural chaos that ensues with the children and one of the craftsmen characters named Bottom. When they are put side by side in a play, they encompass one of the strongest themes of this play:
Reality vs. Fantasy!
Athens and Theseus represent Reality!
(Take a moment to catch your breath before you start reading again, please and thank you.)
Being a city of law and existing in real life, Athens is the space within the play that portrays the real world. The Magic and the Supernatural have no effect on the city itself; just marriages, working craftsmen, and fathers who wish to exercise the law… for better or worse. The only permanence of the forest’s magic lies in the fact that one of the lovers, Demetrius, does not have the love potion originally laid into his eyes removed by Oberon. He returns to Athens still enchanted and the audience can only presume that the effects are permanent with no other information to say otherwise. This one event does not seem to affect the city or world, however, so its overall impact is negligible.
The aspect of fantasy is very apparent throughout the play, and Shakespeare even alludes to the concept with the final speech delivered by Puck to the audience after the rest of the cast has exited.
” 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.” ( Act V, Scene 1, Line 412-417)
Being a comedy that is inspired from mythology and fictional events, the audience already would assume that this play is a fantasy. With the inclusion of the above speech, however, Shakespeare draws the audience to play close attention to the importance of dreams and of fantasy in both life and theater. Between this, the lovers in the forest who are in constant chaos while there, and Bottom describing his experience so that he “will get Peter Quince to write a ballad of this dream”(Act IV, Scene 1, Ln 215), the concept of fantasy is a reminder of the potential danger that it may have if it overtakes reality.. One can only speculate how dangerous the play could’ve gotten if Theseus the Minotaur slayer had encountered Bottom while he was still half man, half ass-headed. (Omerod)
And now… I bow! Happy Holidays everyone!
Mark, Joshua J.. “Athens,” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Last modified April 28, 2011. Web. 20 December 2016. http://www.ancient.eu /Athens/.
Ormerod, David. “A Midsummer Night’s Dream: The Monster In The Labyrinth.” Shakespeare Studies (0582-9399) 11.(1978): 39. Academic Search Premier. Web. 20 Dec. 2016.
Shakespeare, William. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. New York: Fall River Press, 2012. Print. 20 December 2016.