Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream has aged relatively well, but I find that it is the silliest of all of his comedies. I enjoyed it, but it is almost too silly. Humour is fickle – what one person finds uproaringly hilarious is to another simply amusing and to another disgusting. Most of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is indeed hilarious, but it feels disjointed.
After all, this is a play about fairies romping in the forest, love potions getting mixed up, and silly commoners trying to put on a grand play for the elite. It goes well because the King of the Fairies gets what he wants. Yes, nearly everyone is happy in the end, but it is a bit uncomfortable to watch. Also, magic is too much of a plot device to be enjoyable. Most of Shakespeare’s comedies are not dependent on magic at all – they are usually just based around misunderstandings. This was clearly a stretch from Shakespeare’s comfort zone.
As a result, the “serious” plot – that of the lovers – feels out of place. The characters are too serious for the otherwise silly play. Their predicaments are indeed dire. It is not as though they are talking about something serious while in a silly situation. There really isn’t anything funny about it anymore. (Indeed, I’m not sure how funny it would have appeared to Elizabethan audiences either.) Hermia is running away from a death sentence to marry Lysander – once she is in the woods, she can’t go back – and her beloved suddenly spurns her in favour of her friend, who turns on her because she thinks that she is mocking her. Helena’s reputation has been ruined by being spurned by Demetrius in favour of Hermia, which also wrecks her friendship with Hermia, and she follows him into the woods in the hope of getting him back. She has nothing to risk by running off in the woods with a man. Then she feels that both Demetrius and Lysander, as well as Hermia, are mocking her. Both of the men nearly come to blows over Helena.
None of their dialogue is particularly funny, and neither is the situation.
That said, the rest of the play is hilarious and it is one of the few Shakespeare plays that feels genuinely fun. The actors playing the mechanicals and the fairies can ham it up immensely. The characters can interact with the audience without detracting from the play. We are all left with a feeling of having had a jolly good time and a restful dream.
The fantasy genre is not Shakespeare’s forte though. I can see why he didn’t write very many plays like this one.