The critic Northrup Frye in “The Mythos of Spring” forcefully articulated this contrast between imagination and authority. Frye points out that in the initial wintry world of Athens, Hermia must face either death or a sterile convent life if she defies parental and legal authority. But in the fertile world of the woods, everything and everyone is reborn.
The regenerative world of the forest is not without dangers. Witness Hermia’s serpent dream in Midsummer or Orlando and Oliver’s battle with the lion in As You Like It. However, coping with that danger is also the way the characters mature. Their time in the woods is transformative, and they are different when they re-integrate into human society. The trees of the forest–whose sap flows or lies dormant as they follow the cycle of the seasons—are themselves a physical manifestation of and a wonderful metaphor for the transformation undergone by Shakespeare’s characters.
Our journey through the woods is a dream within a dream within a dream. By the play’s end, multiple dreams have been dreamed and discarded. The artisans dream of performing before the Duke, and Bottom awakens to ponder the extraordinary power of dreams and the ability of each of us have to transform and grow through the power of the imagination. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is perhaps the most actively theatrical of all of Shakespeare’s plays and theatre, of course, depends upon our imagination. As we journey through the various worlds of A Midsummer Night’s Dream the lines between them become blurred, the play itself ends, and we are sent out of the woods and into the world where we will need to employ our own imaginations to be whole.