As the days grow shorter, let us reflect on the longest day of the year: midsummer, the summer solstice, June 21st (20th on leap years). The title, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as we have just established, would suggest the action of the play must take place in a relatively short period of time (about seven hours and forty minutes). This lends to a common theme in the play: urgency. And urgency often leads to confusion, and thus some disorder and chaos.
The entire play, in fact, is resolved pre-maturely: by the closing of Act IV.
Act IV begins with Bottom having the head of an ass, still asking of his faerie attendants, “Scratch my head, Peaseblossom” and even unwittingly proclaiming “I/ am a such a tender ass”. And still the lovers (main characters) are all asleep, having just jumped from affection to affection.
But in a line, Oberon sets all aright, telling Puck, “May all to Athens back again repair/ And think no more of this night’s accidents/ But as the fierce vexation of a dream.” All of the problems and mix-ups are fixed in one sweeping motion. And still we are left with an act – a whole fifth of the play after which the problems have seemingly been resolved.
This final act is the play put on by the mechanicals, which, despite its inappropriate nature (love gone awry) to the venue (a wedding), Theseus has selected it to be performed. And at the end of this play, Theseus says something interesting, “No epilogue, I pray you; for your play needs no/ excuse. Never excuse; for when the players are all/ dead, there needs none to be blamed.” But, of course A Midsummer Night’s Dream does have an epilogue, so we might extend the play’s internal logic to say that A Midsummer Night’s Dream does need an excuse, even if all seems to be resolved.
I think the purpose of this final act is to reveal that perhaps not all is quite the way it should be. This happy ending is no happy ending, the conflicts remain unresolved conflicts. Has Titania gotten what she wanted? Has Demetrius? Egeus? No. They have simply been tricked or conned into wanting something else so that the popular resolution is the one that is attained. The resolution is as much a farce as the mechanicals playing at being actors.
Shakespeare is aware that a resolved plot can often leave much to be desired, and he is poking fun at it with this last act. A true resolution would find some compromise so that no one gets quite what they want, but at least something as close as is reasonable. For there to be a happy ending, this true resolution must be done away with, through magic and potions and ridiculous schemes and mishaps and deception.