The works of William Shakespeare evince great fascination and entertainment for the overarching themes orchestrated by the plot and characters. The theme of illusion versus reality is employed in many Shakespearean plays, allowing for the saturation of dramatic irony. In this way, the audience becomes increasingly aware of the feelings, motives, and behaviours of each character and their situation as the plot advances. This enhances the play as it can evoke humour, suspense, or empathy. Throughout Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Hamlet, the characters exemplify the theme of how individuals convey or implement deceptive appearances to fulfill their goals, ultimately eliciting empathy and magnifying the emotions of the audience.
Firstly, different characters in A Midsummer Night’s Dream conceal reality by using magic to achieve their goals. For example, Oberon, King of the Fairies, is a quarrelsome and selfish character who conspires to steal an Indian boy page from his wife, fairy Queen Titania. To do this, Oberon commands Puck, his mischievous fairy servant, to find a magic pansy and inflict Titania with infatuation for a beast. Oberon proclaims:
Having once this juice,
I’ll watch Titania when she is asleep,
And drop the liquor of it in her eyes:
The next things then she waking looks upon-
Be it on lion, bear, or wolf, or bull,
On meddling monkey, or on busy ape-
She shall pursue it with the soul of love.
And ere I take this charm from off her sight-
As I can take it with another herb-
I’ll make her render up her page to me (Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, II.i.176-185).
Oberon’s plans to distort Titania’s emotions demonstrates the theme of illusion versus reality as fictitious dispositions are used for personal gain. His scheme allows the audience to experience a sense of empathy for Titania and a growing anticipation as they await Oberon’s impending torment. Additionally, Puck, a knavish trickster, decides that he will transform Nick Bottom, an Athenian craftsman, into the beast that will enchant Titania. Puck declares to Oberon, “An ass’s nole I fixed on his head/ … Titania waked, and straightway loved an ass” (III.ii.16, 34). Since Bottom is a clownish character and behaves with absurdity, the disfiguring of his appearance provides humour and amusement for the audience as it reflects his bizarre nature.
Similarly, the characters in Hamlet exhibit the theme of illusion versus reality by adopting personas contradictory to their true nature to accomplish their goals. At the beginning of the play, Hamlet encounters the ghost of his late father, King Hamlet of Denmark, and learns that his Uncle Claudius murdered his father to obtain the throne. Succeeding this revelation, Hamlet decides to avenge his father by investigating his death, and then assassinating Claudius if he is the killer. Hamlet vows “to put an antic disposition on” (Hamlet, I.v.71) and feign madness to scrutinize the ghost’s allegations and avoid raising suspicion to his agenda. Hamlet’s resolve creates suspense and induces curiosity for the audience as he plans to corroborate the ghost’s claims under the guise of a madman. Furthermore, Polonius, the Lord Chamberlain of the King’s court, uses charm and wisdom as artifices to conceal his greed and arrogance. Before his son Laertes departs for France, Polonius advises, “This above all: to thine own self be true/ And it must follow, as the night the day/ Thou canst not then be false to any man” (I.iii.78-80). Polonius seems to be a father who extends care for his son by sharing important virtues. However, Polonius dispatches Reynaldo, his spy, to track Laertes’s actions and “make inquire/ Of his behavior” (II.i.4-5) after Laertes leaves Denmark. Polonius is hypocritical as the advice he imparts contradicts his true motives. Laertes believes that his father cares for his well being, causing the audience to pity him as they understand that Polonius is self-absorbed and exudes false goodwill to achieve control over his son.
It is evident that the use of illusions by magic or deceit throughout A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Hamlet enhances the humour, suspense, and empathy experienced by the audience. This theme of illusion versus reality aids the audience in understanding the significance of manipulating reality to depict specific impressions or accomplish hidden ambitions. This state of omniscience of each character’s intentions and actions ultimately intensifies the emotions of the audience.
- Shakespeare, William. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Hoboken, N.J., Wiley Publishing, Inc., 2008.
- Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Canadian School Book Exchange, 1963.