Deconstructing Genius: Shakespeare’s Techniques

From the lecture series: How to Read and Understand Shakespeare

By Marc Connor, Ph.D., Washington and Lee University

As a playwright, William Shakespeare used various plot devices, sometimes combining multiple ones into a single work. Explore Shakespeare’s plots, metaphor, comedy and more to better understand the technical under-workings of his complex plays.

A Midsummer Night's Dream painting
Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing. From William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Painting by William Blake, c. 1786. (Image: William Blake/Public domain)

Let’s review Shakespeare’s techniques as a writer, reviewing the many used in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. 

The reader is introduced to a classic Shakespearean double plotline: Lysander and Hermia fleeing into the woods, and Bottom’s transformation into an ass.

A Third Plotline Thickens

In Dream, two sets of young lovers have fled, and the ridiculous mechanicals, representing the lowest members of society, rehearse a play that comically mirrors the situation of the lovers. Shakespeare introduces a third plot-line, something even his audience could not have been prepared for: Act II begins in the forest, populated by the world of the fairies.

Here we meet “Puck,” a mischievous sprite who delights in misleading travelers, tripping up old women, and frightening maidens. These fairies are drawn partly from English folklore, Celtic mythology, and old literary traditions—they’re a mixture of what the scholar Northrop Frye calls “abandoned belief,” largely abandoned even in Shakespeare’s day. 

This is a transcript from the video series How to Read and Understand Shakespeare. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania painting by Joseph Noel Paton, 1849.
“His mother was a votress of my order,”… “she, being mortal, of that boy did die / And for her sake do I rear up her boy / and for her sake I will not part with him.” (Image: Joseph Noel Paton/Public domain)

Like the low plot of the mechanicals, the plot of the fairy world mirrors the high plot of the blocked lovers. In the fairy kingdom, conflict is raging: Oberon and Titania, the king and queen of the fairies, will not abide by each other’s company. Oberon wants Titania to give him a “changeling boy,” to be his servant, but she refuses. It’s a battle of wills between man and woman, not unlike the battle between Theseus and Hippolyta when he wooed her with his sword, and between Hermia and her father Egeus.

The parallels in Shakespeare’s plots are important. Titania’s reason for not giving the boy is telling: “His mother was a votress of my order,” she explains, describing the marvelous adventures they shared; “But,” she concludes, “she, being mortal, of that boy did die / And for her sake do I rear up her boy / and for her sake I will not part with him.

Learn more about the four points of entry for understanding what’s happening in a Shakespeare play

Shakespeare’s Techniques Beyond Plot

Titania’s refusal to obey Oberon is based on her loyalty to another woman—just like the sisterly bond between Hermia and Helena that is challenged by the male suitors. Shakespeare’s tools of the block to love and friends to lovers work in this part of the plot as well. Indeed, this is often true in a Shakespeare play: To understand one plotline, one must understand all the others to see how they speak to one another.

The result of this discord and strife among the fairies is remarkable: Storms rage, rivers flood, crops fail, sickness abounds, the very seasons alter because of their rage. In short, chaos in the world of nature and the human world is caused by dissension in the spiritual world. It’s an eloquent expression of the idea that all levels of life need to be harmonized for creation to thrive. The initial crisis of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is not merely the separation of young lovers; the entire cosmos is threatened by the blocks to love that open this play. Compared to his earlier comedies, Shakespeare enriched the standard comic structure, giving it a philosophical depth and complexity beyond what his contemporary playwrights had done.

Learn more about how Shakespeare created theatrical “reality” through language

The entry into the forest brings these conflicts to bear in a single space for one night. This plot point illustrates a final tool for understanding Shakespeare, what I call the green world tool. This flight into nature is a standard device in Shakespearean comedy—the unnamed forest outside Milan in Two Gentlemen of Verona, the Forest of Arden in As You Like It, and the shepherd realm in Bohemia in The Winter’s Tale. In Dream, we see the whole range of meanings that Shakespeare attaches to this green world. It is far more than just an escape from the city.

We can list a whole range of oppositions that Shakespeare suggests between the world of Athens and that of the forest: Athens is the city, the forest is nature; Athens is reason and judgment, the forest is dream and imagination; Athens is law and order, the forest is chaos and love, or at least eroticism; and Athens is the human domain, whereas the forest is the domain of nature and the supernatural. This is where the fairies rule.

The play suggests that residing in only one of these domains is harmful—reason without imagination, or law without love, is a sterile, harsh life; and letting imagination, dream, or nature run wild without restraint is a kind of madness. It’s as if Shakespeare takes the warring parts of our very psyche and embodies them on the stage, and tries, in his comedies, to balance these conflicting parts of human nature; his tragedies show the failure to balance them, resulting in madness and death— another version of the altar or the tomb tool, based on the direction the plays follow.

Doing More With Metaphors

How do humans interact with this fairy kingdom? As the double plot tool suggests, Shakespeare offers two levels of interaction, one by the lovers Hermia, Lysander, Helena, and Demetrius; and another by Bottom and his fellow mechanicals. Again, the double plots mirror and comment on one another. The lovers enter the forest and experience confusion, particularly of their identities and of love. Oberon sees Helena and takes pity on her for the scornful way Demetrius rejects her. He commands Puck to anoint the Athenian’s eyes with a love potion derived from the pansy, or “love-in-idleness” flower.

Learn more about how Shakespeare expands on the classical Roman model of comedy in A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Puck dutifully anoints the eyes of an Athenian man, but of course, it’s the wrong one. When Lysander awakens and sees Helena, he falls madly in love with her and forgets all about Hermia. Oberon then commands Puck to anoint the other Athenian’s eyes, which he does, so now both men pursue Helena—much to poor Hermia’s dismay. This storyline is all good comedy, the funny confusion of identity and love partners. Shakespeare then deepens the issues by using comedy to pursue the very meaning of love.

Hermia and Helena
Hermia and Helena by Washington Allston (1818). (Image: Washington Allston/Public domain)

He does this through the sustained motif of the eyes, of sight, seeing, and of blindness. At the end of the first scene, Helena complains that Demetrius loves Hermia more than he loves her, even though the two girls are equally fair. She laments: “Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind, / And therefore is wing’d Cupid painted blind.

Appearance, she suggests, does not determine love—it’s a blind attraction, dependent on the mind or, we might say, one’s “imaginary forces.” Theater and love are quite similar, it seems. This sensitivity to sight explains why the love potion in the forest is applied to the eyes—as Oberon describes the potion’s effect to Puck, “The juice of it, on sleeping eyelids laid, / Will make or man or woman madly dote / Upon the next live creature that it sees.

It doesn’t matter what you see—love is independent of sight, and so the potion mocks the very power of the eyes. When Lysander awakens to behold Helena, he exclaims, “The will of man is by his reason sway’d, / And reason says you are the worthier maid.” But it’s not his reason at all. It’s love juice, it’s blindness, it’s a fairy power beyond his understanding. Shakespeare suggests this is what human love is, a kind of magical madness.

Learn more about the three-part structure of the Shakespeare’s comedies

We see this, even more, when Oberon anoints Titania’s eyes with the potion, as a punishment for her refusal to give him the changeling boy. Oberon hisses, “Wake when some vile thing is near.” Oberon gets his wish. 

Puck, coming upon the mechanicals in their rehearsal, mischievously transforms Bottom’s head into the head of an ass—usually staged as his suddenly springing enormous donkey ears, sometimes a complete ass’s head, humorously suggesting that Bottom now resembles outwardly what he already was inside.

Hilarity Ensues

Naturally, Titania, the beautiful queen of the fairies, awakes from her midnight slumber to find Bottom, the lowest figure in the human realm and now half-animal, falling instantly in love with him.

Titania and Bottom
Titania the fairy queen falls in love with Bottom, the lowest figure in the human realm and now half-animal — Titania and Bottom by Edwin Landseer (1848). (Image: Edwin Henry Landseer/Public domain)

Upon hearing Bottom singing—a raucous hee-haw braying—Titania asks, “What angel wakes me from my flowery bed?” She then addresses the confused Bottom, saying,

I pray thee, gentle mortal, sing again:
Mine ear is much enamour’d of thy note;
So is mine eye enthralled to thy shape, 
And thy fair virtue’s force perforce doth move me
On the first view to say, to swear, I love thee.

It’s a hilarious situation, and it pushes the blind love motif to its most extreme point—but note the radical implications of Shakespeare: He portrays the highest figure in the land—the Faerie Queen, a nudge away from his own Queen Elizabeth—as the slave to the lowest figure, the very Bottom of the social world. Is this an echo of the poor village boy working mightily to make it in the great city of London, even trying to impress the Queen herself in his performances at court? Dream came out about the same year that Shakespeare wrote Richard II, which shows the actual deposing of the rightful king—a scene that was not lost on Elizabeth. Reportedly she stood up in outrage at a performance of this play and shouted, “I am Richard, know ye not that?”

Shakespeare is interested in the radical possibilities of the theater. Certainly, we must be careful to read Bottom as truly an ass, as a fool with no understanding; for at this very moment Bottom utters the wisdom of this play: When Titania states her love for him, Bottom replies with all good sense, “Methinks, mistress, you should have little reason for that. And yet, to say the truth, reason and love keep little company together nowadays.”

As the confusion in the forest heightens, as the lovers even threaten one another’s lives, and as Titania falls into idolatry towards the ridiculous Bottom, the sense of fear and danger increases. In recent productions, often the forest world is portrayed as a nightmare, a surging forth of our deepest subconscious terrors and desires. Indeed, Bottom has spoken the truth of this play: Reason and love keep little company together.

We see that our five major tools for understanding comedy—the block to love, the altar or tomb direction, the friends to lovers tool, the double-plot tool, and the green world—have shown us all the major themes and concepts at work in this play.

Common Questions About Shakespeare’s Techniques

Q: Why did Shakespeare use techniques and literary devices?

Shakespeare’s use of literary devices was a writing technique to express ideas. All writing uses some type of literary device, but Shakespeare did so on a very high level.

Q: What are some of Shakespeare’s techniques used in Macbeth?

Shakespeare uses three main techniques, or literary devices, in Macbeth: irony, imagery, and symbolism.

Q: What techniques did Shakespeare use in Hamlet?

Hamlet is most famous for the use of soliloquies, where a character reveals his or her inner thoughts aloud to the audience.

Q: How does Shakespeare use techniques in Romeo and Juliet?

Shakespeare uses the technique of personification most famously in Juliet’s soliloquy.

This article was updated on November 14, 2019

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