“Lord, what fools these mortals be!” This line, uttered by the fairy king’s servant and trickster Robin Goodfellow, is very telling of how ridiculous the central four characters in William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream are in their thoughts and actions. The true motivation behind their actions, though, is not found in witty quips by knavish fairies, but rather in the symbolic nature of the play’s setting. The varied settings in the play, from Duke Theseus’s regal estate to Fairy Queen Titania’s forest bower, serve to set the mood of every scene, and to accentuate the characters actions throughout the play. By observing the rich yet subtle backdrops of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, it is possible to glean greater understanding of what drives the characters to act as they do.
The play opens at Theseus’ grand country estate, where he and his Amazon-warrior-turned-lover Hippolyta are preparing for their wedding. Even as they are making these preparations, though, Theseus tells Hippolyta that the wait until marriage is too long, saying “But, O, methinks how slow this old moon wanes! She lingers my desires like to a stepdame or a dowager long withering out a young man’s revenue.” His mention of the moon is possibly a nod to the disorder of the fairy world, of which the moon and other natural forces are a large part. However, he must of course wait until his wedding day for all his dreams to come true, since he is living in the world of the orderly and proper, symbolized here by his lavish estate. Later, after Theseus lays out his ultimatum to Hermia, daughter of Egeus and the woman central to the plot, regarding her planned marriage to Demetrius, the man Egeus has chosen as her husband, she and Lysander, her lover, plan to meet in the forest outside the city walls, as part of their plan to elope to Lysander’s aunt’s house. This again shows the contrast between the uptight, orderly manner of the Athenean city and the freedom, disorder, and alluring opportunity...
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