Honor thy love: The purpose of Act 5 in A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Michael Hoffman's Midsummer Night's Dream poster

Michael Hoffman's Midsummer Night's Dream poster

Michael Hoffman’s version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream plays Thisbe’s end quite dramatically.

 The well performed tragedy brings a whole new meaning to Thisbe’s lines, “Dead, dead? A tomb must cover thy sweet eyes […] These yellow cowslip cheeks are gone, are gone! Lover’s make moan” (Act 5, Scene 1, 305-306, 311-314.)

In the Hoffman version when Thisbe delivers the next line she addresses the audience, as if beseeching them to recognize in her lover what she saw in him, “His eyes were green as leeks” (Act 5, Scene 1, 315). This Hoffman interpretation of Thisbe casts the purpose of the mechanicals in an entirely different light.

Spark Notes asserts “that the inherent structure of a play-within-a-play allows Shakespeare to show off his talent by inserting a gem of pure comedy.” However, in absence of margin notes or stage directions it becomes entirely possible that Shakespeare meant it as a warning to the lovers never to take their happiness and blessed state for granted.

Perhaps it is an indication that in another play, another world, one that mirrors their own, their happiness would not be a forgone conclusion. To take it one step further, could Shakespeare be threatening his own characters? How easy it was for him to re-work them, give them different names, and thus give them different fates.

Further proof of a deeper meaning perhaps being intended with Act 5, Scene 1 is that Act 4, Scene 1 seems to set all things right in Athens to the satisfaction of tying up all loose ends, (and if someone was not satisfied with what became of the mechanicals, Act 4, Scene 2 clears it up in just a few lines by re-uniting Bottom with the cast).

First of all, the lovers are paired again as they should be. The hunting party comes upon Hermia and Lysander, Helen and Demetrius sleeping in the woods. Theseus questions how could this be, “That hatred is so far from jealousy, to sleep by hate and fear no enmity?” (Act 4, Scene 1, 130-140) and Lysander tries to explain that he’s still half asleep but shoots from the hip nonetheless, “Our intent was to be gone from Athens” (Act 4, Scene 1, 146-147.)

Egeus wants Lysander thrown in jail but then Demetrius pipes up and says it’s all true, that Helen told him what Hermia and Lysander planned to do and that he came to wood “in fury” to go after them and that Helen, blinded by love, followed him out there and then says, “But, my good lord, I wot not by what power—But by some power it is—my love to Hermia, melted as the snow” (Act 4, Scene 1, 159-161) and goes on to declare his love for Helen “and [that he] will forevermore be true to it” (Act 4, Scene 1, 171).

The second thing that Shakespeare settles, probably mostly for the audience, is the characters reactions to what occurred to them in the woods. Demetrius says, “These things seem small and undistinguishable, like far-off mountains turned into clouds.” (Act 4, Scene 1, 181-182) and Hermia answers, “Methinks I see these things with parted eye, when everything seems double” (Act 4, Scene 1, 183-184).

They decide to just leave it at that, not to talk about it anymore. The last thing major thing that is concluded at the very end of Act 4, Scene 1 is Bottom waking up and saying, “I have had a dream, past the wit of man to say what dream it was” (Act 4, Scene 1, 198-199). Bottom feels strongly that something extraordinary has happened but he decides not to even try to explain it to himself or anyone. In other words, it did happen, but to answer how or why would be impossible.

The play consistently weaves back to the mechanicals by shining the spotlight on Bottom to that extent that if Shakespeare would not have included their play somewhere in his play it would have left the audience with a feeling of missing something anyway. Spark Notes indicated that it was “the opportunity to give the audience one act of pure, uncomplicated comedy,” but that seems to be only partly true, especially when the play of Pyramus and Thisbe signifies what the characters themselves just went through; a big mix up with much distress, at night, in the woods and they had all but lost hope.

For the characters of the mechanical’s play, it heralded tragedy but as Theseus says, “Merry and tragical? Tedious and brief? That is, hot ice and wondrous strange snow” (Act 5, Scene 1, 58-60). With these lines Shakespeare may have been trying to warn the audience that what may seem like a comedy of a tragedy is also how close the characters of Hermia and Lysander, Helena and Demetrius and Theseus and Hippolyta came to not realizing their own happiness.

  1. #1 by Caitlin on September 11, 2010 - 8:50 pm

    Hi there,

    Your analysis has been really helpful to me in writing an essay for a class I’m taking on Shakespeare’s plays. I want to quote you and cite you as a source, but I’m concerned my professor won’t take it seriously if I list your blog name as the author. Any chance I could get your real name, or even a pseudonym that sounds like a real name, that I could use on my works cited page?


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