"A Midsummer Night's Dream" is my personal favourite of Shakespeare's comedies. The reason for this is probably that it was the first one I understood properly, since we performed it at school when I was a very young thirteen years of age. However, it has stayed a favourite because of the bard's incredibly delicate and clever ways of dealing with the universal themes of the conflicts between love and duty, and the irrational and rational.
In "A Midsummer Night's Dream", Shakespeare has created a subtle, delightful and often somewhat affectionate treatise on us "foolish mortals" and our wonderful internal inconsistencies. He creates two worlds: one of duty and rationality (the world of Athens, its laws and the court of Theseus) and one of love and irrationality (the world of the forest, its magic and the court of Oberon and Titania). He cleverly juxtaposes ideas of familial duty (Hermia's duty to her father and his decisions) with our natural inclination to believe that love conquers all (she runs away to marry her true love - Lysander).
The fairy court itself has been thrown into chaos by the argument between the king and queen of fairies. Titania and Oberon are fighting over Titania's refusal to give "a little Indian boy" over to Oberon as a page. Their jealousies and fighting have spilled over into the natural world, upsetting the seasons and causing all sorts of unnatural occurences. Using this device, Shakespeare highlights the irrational nature of love, and shows how this irrationality has its result in the real,natural world.
Oberon's plan to win Titania over (using the 'Love-in-Idleness" flower to make her fall in love with the 'translated' Bottom) extends to an attempt to resolve the four lovers plight by making Demetrius fall in love with Helena. However, Puck's (deliberate?) mistakes on this count cause even more confusion and disorder. Clearly, Shakespeare is mocking the habit of young people to change their affections like the wind, not to mention the tendency to take it all very seriously. While it is extremely funny to us as an audience, the characters are clearly utterly befuddled, and very upset over it all. This takes place in the forest, a place of magic and irrationality, where people are given donkey's heads and the fairy queen can fall in love with a monster. This emphasises the irational nature of love.
Of course, this being a comedy, "all's well that ends well". Demetrius forsakes his (somewhat suspect) claim on Hermia in favour of Helena, Theseus overrules Egeus' wishes and allows Lysander and Helena to be wed, and a great party takes place, including the unmissable, and utterly delightful "Pyramus and Thisbe", which serves as a microcosm of the same themes. The play, which is supposed to be a tragedy, but due to the incompetence of its actors is probably the funniest part of the story, also deals with a forbidden love, but, of course, in this one it results in death (much like the Bard's great tragedy "Romeo and Juliet" which is more or less the same story, but in a totally different register).
The play ends with a melding of these two apparently inconsistent worlds - the fairy court comes dancing into Theseus' house, revealing that the dichotomies of duty/love and rational/irrational are maybe not as clear cut as we may think. Shakespeare leaves us with the idea that the line between these worlds - that of the rational, lawful Athens and the irrational, magical forest - are hazy. Similarly, in our own lives, those lines are not always as straight-forward as they may seem.
The bard makes it clear that, in Puck's immortal words, "Lord, what fool these mortals be!"