In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare masterfully crafts a play with three very different viewpoints that can be interpreted, when woven together, in a number of ways that range from seemingly obvious interpretations to ones much more subtle. He ends the play with an apology that is just as elusive as the play’s interpretation. If one looks past the obvious, however, one can begin to piece together a possible message that mortals, no matter the power they hold on earth, are subject to far greater unseen powers whether they believe in them or not.
Shakespeare’s epilogue at the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream has haunted many critics and resulted in numerous interpretations. Through Robin, he clearly gives the audience a message, but its meaning is ambiguous. It appears to be a disclaimer of some sort, but the exact nature of the offense and the reasoning behind it is unclear:
If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended:
That you have but slumbered here,
While these visions did appear; (Epilogue 1-4)
If the shadows in the play offend the audience, one naturally wonders how and why. It is obvious that Shakespeare wished to escape “the serpent’s tongue,” which leads one to believe he expected a negative reaction from the audience or at least felt it was possible. Therefore, he suggests for those who find offense to think of the play as merely a dream, which does seem to explain the title of the play. Yet, the audience has just watched the play in which the Athenian lovers explain the escapades of the night as a dream, which causes confusion in the interpretation of Robin’s final address to the audience. Understanding the nature of the “offense” is a key element in understanding Robin’s final words; however, one must also question the identity of the “shadows” before attempting to understand the offense.
Most would assume that the shadows responsible for the offense are Shakespeare’s fairies. In “What is the Dream in A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Robert Crosman states “the ‘offense’ would presumably be the play’s benign view of fairies in the face of an orthodox Protestant Christian belief that fairies, if they existed at all, were evil spirits” (1), and this raises a valid point. According to Gail Paster and Skiles Howard in “Fairy Belief,” England during this time was still struggling between the beliefs of both Catholicism and Protestantism amid the Protestant reformation. Caught somewhere in the middle, fairy belief became a weapon for Protestants who unfairly accused the Catholic Church of promoting such Pagan beliefs, which resulted in the Church prohibiting practices that supported fairy belief (Paster and Howard 308). Therefore, one could assume that Shakespeare was possibly worried about offending some audience members. Yet, if Shakespeare was indeed worried about offensive fairies, their role in the play would most likely not be as significant. After all, their actions are largely responsible for the play’s plot. When...