Have you ever heard the wind howl? Did you know that’s an example of personification? In this lesson, we’ll explore the ways Shakespeare applies human traits to inanimate objects in ”A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
Having Fun with Personification
Do you remember this popular nursery rhyme?
”Hey Diddle, Diddle” by Mother Goose
”Hey, diddle, diddle,
The cat and the fiddle,
The cow jumped over the moon;
The little dog laughed
To see such sport,
And the dish ran away with the spoon.”
As a child, you probably found it quite amusing to think of a cat playing a fiddle or a dish and spoon joining hands and running away together. What you may not have realized is that this little poem is a great example of the literary term that’s the subject of this lesson.
Personification is the act of giving human attributes to non-human objects. Why would a writer choose to do that? Personification makes descriptions more interesting and relatable for readers. It also creates language that helps readers feel more connected to what’s going on in the story, or it makes passages or ideas more memorable. For example, you could say, ”The wind caused the trees to blow” or you could write, ”The tree danced back and forth in the breeze.” Which one is more memorable and paints a more vivid picture of what’s happening? Even though trees can’t dance, using personification to give the inanimate objects life makes the scene more vivid and memorable.
The idea of personification has been around for a long time. William Shakespeare even used it more than 400 years ago when he wrote A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Let’s take a look at some examples of Shakespeare giving non-human objects human attributes in this comedy.
Personification in A Midsummer Night’s Dream
1. Titania speaks about the moon.
In this first example, Titania gives the moon the human behavior of crying:
”The moon methinks looks with a watery eye; And when she weeps, weeps every little flower, Lamenting some enforced chastity.”
Though some people claim to see a face in the moon, the moon doesn’t have eyes and certainly cannot be a woman weeping. While we’re talking about this passage, we can also note that flowers also do not cry – depicting yet another inanimate object that is given a human trait.
2. Helena wishes that a frown could be a teacher.
In a conversation between Hermia and Helena, Helena is lamenting that she is unable to sway a man’s love. Hermia is able to frown at a man and he is still smitten with her. Helena begs: ”O that your frowns would teach my smiles such skill!”
Hermia herself could possibly teach Helena a thing or two, but Hermia’s frown is not able to teach Helena’s smiles anything at all.
3. Oberon remarks on sleep walking about.
Speaking on sleep, Oberon likens it to a human walking about: ”Till o’er their brows death-counterfeiting sleep, With leaden legs and batty wings doth creep.”
It would be rather creepy if sleep were able to get up and walk around, wouldn’t it? Yet, Shakespeare uses personification to describe an abstract idea like sleep, even giving it ”leaden legs and batty wings.” Humans don’t have batty wings, of course, but it’s still giving life to an abstract thought or idea.
4. Lysander is running from the law.
Lysander and Hermia are having a chat about marriage and outrunning the law. Seems like a great combination, right? His quote gives the human property of chasing or pursuing something to Athenian law:
”There, gentle Hermia, may I marry thee; And to that place the sharp Athenian law Cannot pursue us.”
Even today, we hear people talking about running from the law, as though the law itself is doing the pursuing. It appears even Lysander thought the law could put on a pair of running shoes and chase him.
5. Helena discusses love’s humanity.
”Love can transpose to form and dignity: Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind; And therefore is wing’d Cupid painted blind: Nor hath Love’s mind of any judgement taste;”
Phew, love is busy, isn’t it? Love is a great thing, but it doesn’t have all the human capabilities listed here, including transposing itself, looking at something with its eyes or mind nor having its own judgment. Helena have given love its own mind and behaviors in this passage, and as much as we might like it to, love simply cannot do its own human things.
6. Titania mentions the seasons.
”Is, as in mockery, set: the spring, the summer, The childing autumn, angry winter, change; Their wonted liveries, and the mazed world,”
Okay, what does that even mean? Basically, Titania is blaming the actions of those around her for causing the seasons to get angry and change places. And, now that they’ve traded places, they’re confused and don’t know which season is which. Admittedly, the seasons seem to do their own thing more and more, but the human characteristic of trading places with one another and getting confused is not something seasons can do.
As you can see, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is packed full of examples of personification, or giving human characteristics to non-human objects or ideas. Whether it’s the moon, the seasons, love, the law, sleep or a frown, various characters in this Shakespearean comedy assign human behaviors or responses to them. The seasons get confused, love thinks for itself and the moon weeps like a woman. In all of these instances, personification helps to make the story more engaging and memorable for the reader.