By Marjorie Garber
If we shadows have offended
Think but this, and all is mended:
That you have but slumb'red here,
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream.
V. i. 422–27
Puck's closing address to the audience is characteristic of the tone of A Midsummer Night's Dream; it seems to trivialize what it obliquely praises. All the key words of dream are here, as they have been from the play's title and opening lines: "shadows," "slumb'red," "visions," and "dream" itself. Puck is making an important analogy between the play and the dream state—an analogy we have encountered before in Shakespeare, but which is here for the first time carefully explored. For A Midsummer Night's Dream is a play consciously concerned with dreaming; it reverses the categories of reality and illusion, sleeping and waking, art and nature, to touch upon the central theme of the dream which is truer than reality.
Puck offers the traditional apologia at the play's end; if the audience is dissatisfied, it may choose to regard the play as only a "dream" or trifle and not a real experience at all. The players, as Theseus has already suggested, are only "shadows" (V.i.212); the play, in short, is potentially reducible to a "weak and idle theme" of no significance. Yet everything which has gone before points in precisely the opposite direction: sleep in A Midsummer Night's Dream is the gateway, not to folly, but to revelation and reordering; the "visions" gained are, as Bottom says, "most rare" (IV.i.208), and the "shadows" substantial. Puck's purposeful ambiguity dwells yet again on a lesson learned by character after character within the play: that reason is impoverished without imagination, and that we must accept the dimension of dream in our lives. Without this acknowledgment, there can be no real self-knowledge.
The fundamental reversal or inversion of conventional categories which is a structuring principle of this play is familiar to us in part from the framing device of The Taming of the Shrew. The Athenian lovers flee to the wood and fall asleep, entering as they do so the charmed circle of dream. When Puck comes upon them and anoints their eyes, the world of the supernatural at once takes over the stage, controlling their lives in a way they cannot guess at, but must accept, "apprehending" "more than cool reason ever comprehends." In the great dream of the forest experience and the smaller dreams within it, we might say paradoxically that their eyes are opened; this is the fundamental significance of the key word "vision," which appears several times in the play, offsetting the deliberately disparaging use of "dream" to mean something insignificant, momentary.
* * *
By contrast "vision," as it is introduced into the play, is a code word for the dream understood, the dream correctly valued. Often the user does not know that he knows; this is another of the play's thematic patterns, supporting the elevation of the irrational above the merely rational. As a device it is related to a character type always present in Shakespeare, but more highly refined in the later plays, that of the wise fool. Thus Bottom, awakening, is immediately and intuitively impressed with the significance of his "dream," which we of course recognize as not a dream at all, but rather a literal reality within the play.
I have had a most rare
vision. I have had a dream, past the wit of man to say
what dream it was.
* * *
It is [the] transposition of transformation which is the special prerogative of the dream state and the center of interest of the whole of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Dream is truer than reality because it has this transforming power; it is part of the fertile, unbounded world of the imagination.
* * *
At the last, as Puck alone remains upon the stage, the "shadows" of A Midsummer Night's Dream have become inexhaustibly evocative, "no more yielding but a dream," in a dramatic world where dreams are a reliable source of vision and heightened insight, consistently truer than the reality they seek to interpret and transform.
Excerpted from Dream in Shakespeare, © 1974, and reprinted with permission from Yale University Press.
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