Discuss William Shakespeare's Presentation of Order and Disorder in ‘a Midsummer Night’s Dream’

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Towards the end of the play, as the Athenian nobles prepare for the mechanicals’ performance, Theseus remarks, “How shall we find the concord of this discord?” This question relates to the whole play; the discords of Oberon and Titania and the lovers having been resolved into concord. The following mechanicals’ play of ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ offers a new set of incongruous conjunctions reflecting - as in a distorting mirror - aspects of the earlier discords.

In this play the apparently anarchic tendencies of the young lovers, of the mechanicals-as-actors, and of Puck are restrained by the "sharp Athenian law" and the law of the Palace Wood, by Theseus, Oberon, and their respective consorts. This tension within the world of the play is matched in its construction; in performance it can at times seem riotous and out of control, and yet the structure of the play shows a clear interest in symmetry and patterning.

My intention is to examine Shakespeare's concords and discords in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Shakespeare’s use of these musical terms, concordance and discordance, puts in mind a famous quote of his:

“If music be the food of love, play on,”

This was written soon after AMSND, around 1600, and the idea of music being the sustaining and rejuvenating factor of love is clearly present in AMSND. In act 4 scene 1, following the concordance of the lovers, the removal of Bottom’s “transforméd scalp” and the “release [of] the Fairy Queen”, Oberon and Titania sing and dance to mark that they “are new in amity”. Music is used here to symbolise the return to harmony in theirs and the Athenian’s relationships. Music is simply ordered sound, it is the harmony that humans have found in nature. So, if human order within nature “be the food of love”, it would stand to reason (at least within the world of Mr. Shakespeare) that the Palace Wood of the fairies, as a personified order system within nature, is fundamentally connected with love and music. And this appears to be so, as the fairies, though only “shadows”, are in control of the mortals’ love in the play.

The existence of fairies was a popularly held belief at the time of AMSN; they are a large part of folklore and with the growth of Puritanism in England they were believed by some to be “devils entirely”. Fairies were generally found in homes and farms and it was believed that they rewarded good and tidy people and severely punished others. Dealing with fairies was in some cases considered a form of witchcraft and was punished as such. However, Shakespeare’s portrayal of fairies is peaceful and lyrical – they are those who “hang a pearl in every cowslip’s ear” and are merely “shadows” that are “No more yielding but a dream”. Shakespeare uses the public superstition of humanlike rationality in the unfathomable as a metaphor for nature and nature’s processes. This completely contradicts the Elizabethan conception of fairies, and is therefore disorderly in terms of public thought. But such was the popularity of Shakespeare that his literary contemporaries perpetuated his descriptions of fairies given in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Thus changing the popular belief of fairies from wicked spirits to shadows and dreams, a transformation which lasts to this day.

Puck (a.k.a Robin Goodfellow) is the medium through which the fairy and human worlds interact, he is introduced as a “shrewd and knavish sprite”, and he is known to “fright the maidens” and “Mislead night wanderers, laughing at their harm”. He is a “jest[er] to Oberon” and a general creator of chaos. Throughout the play; he mistakes Lysander for Demetrius “by the Athenian garments he hath on”, and he transforms Bottom’s head into that of an ass. When he is faced with the resulting bedlam he is “glad it so did sort, as this their jangling [he] esteem[s] a sport.” For these reasons it would seem as though Puck embodies anarchy and does only as he pleases, but, as well as bringing chaos Puck restores order....
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