Illusion and Dissolution
Gender and the Anti-theatrical Debate in A Midsummer Night's Dream


In the final scene of A Midsummer Night's Dream, the main plot and the subplot intersect when the mechanicals must perform their fractured version of Pyramus and Thisby in front of Theseus and the rest of the Athenian court. Before the play starts Theseus explores the nature of reality and illusion, suggesting that what the lovers have told him about their night in the forest is not true. Sounding very much like Stephen Gosson, Theseus proclaims the soundness of his powers of discrimination. He notes "How easy is a bush suppos'd a bear!" (V.i.22) and assures his wife that he will not be deceived by "these antic fables, nor these fairy toys" (V.i.3), as related to him by Hermia and Lysander and Helena and Demetrius. But Hippolyta remarks that Theseus is in fact deceived; she says:

But all the story of the night told over,
And all their minds transfigur'd so together,
More witnesseth than fancy's images,
And grows to something of great constancy (V.i.23-6).

What happened in the woods, Hippolyta tells Theseus, could not have been illusion, it was real.

Shortly thereafter, when the mechanicals begin their performance of Pyramus and Thisby, we quickly find that their anxieties were utterly unfounded. True to their intentions, not only are the ladies in the audience completely unfazed by their production, but no-one is deceived by their dissemblance. As I have said, this is the production's defect. Hermia and Helena, previously indoctrinated with anti-theatrical arguments about the danger of illusion, seem to approve the mechanicals' performance by their complete silence. Theseus, Lysander, and Demetrius, however, find the tragedy of Pyramus and Thisby, underwritten by anti-theatrical anxieties and therefore without illusion, without theatricality, thoroughly comical and are satisfied simply with mocking the production and taunting the mechanicals. Hippolyta, however, is less interested in ridiculing the play and the players than she is in finding some enjoyment in it. Although she says that the mechanicals' performance is "the silliest stuff that ever I heard" (V.i.210), she seems to crave the illusion of theatricality.

Finally, in A Midsummer Night's Dream the sub-plot suggests that real life has no place in drama, that Bottom the weaver and Snout the tinker have no place in Pyramus and Thisby. At the same time the main-plot suggests that theatrical illusion has no place in real life, that fairy stories have no place in reality. But Hippolyta reminds Theseus — and us — that the fairy story which the lovers relate is in fact real. It would seem then that real life, as in the main-plot of the play involving Hermia and Helena, is more dangerous to female identity than the theater.

Stephen Gosson warns his readership of gentlewomen to beware of the theater, which are "places, which in sorrowe cheere you" (60) he says. Theseus suggests to Hippolyta that this is exactly the value of plays: "to ease the anguish of a torturing hour" (V.i.37) as he says. Hippolyta's dissatisfaction with the theatrical production is that it finally does not preference illusion over reality, it does not ease or provide cheer. In the final scene of the play, after everyone exits the stage, Puck advances in a final flourish of theatricality to remedy Hippolyta's complaint. He addresses the audience as "Gentles" (V.i.429), significantly without respect to gender. Although he nods to the Hermias and Helenas (and Stephen Gossons) of the audience by acknowledging that the matter of the play may be "weak and idle" (V.i.427) and has the potential to offend, he is more insistent that as players they are all really "shadows" and "visions" (V.i.423,426): Puck emphasizes the pure theatricality of their production, going so far as to say that even the real flesh-and-blood actors are mere illusions. Indeed, although the fairy story's intersection with Hermia's and Helena's lives destroys their absolute identity, this fairy story, Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, Puck suggests, begging the audience to applaud and not to hiss, is as harmless — for audiences of men and women alike — as a dream.

We must remember finally that Demetrius never receives the antidote to the love-juice and retains his illusory identity until the end of the play. It is Demetrius' illusory identity which leads him to fall in love with Helena; presumably, the removal of the illusion would also remove his love for Helena and he would again pursue Hermia. The play would end where it began: in chaos. The resolution of the play, then, and the reinstatement of the social order, figured by the marriages of each of the couples at the close of the play, depends upon the lasting effects of theatrical illusion. Although theatrical illusion fulfills female desire (in Helena's marriage to Demetrius) and even fulfills female desire in rebellion against patriarchy (in Hermia's marriage to Lysander against her father's wishes), it is exactly this illusion which establishes social order. A Midsummer Night's Dream in this way ratifies the anti-theatricalists' fears at the same time that it suggests theatrical illusion effectuates a well-ordered — and ultimately productive — society.