The Dream Within a Dream in William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream
Shakespeare anticipates the Freudian concept of the dream as egoistic wish-fulfillment through the chaotic and mimetic desires of his characters in "A Midsummer Night's Dream." The play also utilizes a secondary meaning of the word "dream" - musicality - by tapping into theater's potential for sensory enchantment. Through this artificial recreation of the dream-state, Shakespeare integrates the audience, whom the solipsistic characters have run the risk of alienating, into the dream. Ultimately, the play refutes a psychoanalytic interpretation by reminding the observer that dreams, much like love, sometimes have "no bottom" (IV.i.209) and lack logical motivation.
If the dreamer's goal is always wish-fulfillment, cloaked or not, as Freud argues, then the four lovers fit his theory perfectly. Shakespeare toys with the fickleness of desire through Oberon's "love-in-idleness" flower, a symbol of debauched purity: "Before, milk-white; now, purple with love's wound" (II.i.167). Puck's haphazard "planting" of the juice in the lovers' eyes sets up a system of indiscriminate desire-attachments. The gaze becomes the only agent for desire, yet it is a manipulated gaze which destroys reasoning - as Oberon gleefully notes, Titania may not even relegate herself to her own species: "The next thing 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" (II.i.179-182). Laura Mulvey addresses the phallocentric roots of the gaze in "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema":
"Woman then stands in patriarchal culture as signifier for the male other, bound by a symbolic order in which man can live out his fantasies and obsessions through linguistic command by imposing them on the silent image of woman still tied to her place as bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning."
Titania and Oberon's squabble over the changeling child follows Mulvey's second point on the male fear of castration and its relationship to the gaze: "The function of the woman in forming the patriarchal unconscious is two-fold; she first symbolizes the castration threat by her real absence of a penis and second she thereby raises her child into the symbolic." According to Mulvey, Titania "turns her child into the signifier of her own desire to possess a penis," and Oberon wrests the symbolic phallus from her to retain his status as "the Name of the Father and the Law." The tense and insulting greetings between Oberon and Titania typify this; Oberon refers to her as "proud Titania" (II.i.60), with a possible phallic pun on the obsolete meaning of "proud" as "Sensually excited; ?swelling,' lascivious" (OED, 8), and Titania returns the favor with the more direct "jealous Oberon" (II.i.61).
Shakespeare seemingly resists Mulvey's explanation by...