A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Literary Term of the Day

Today’s buzzword is foil. A foil is where one qualitiy is accentuated by the contrast of the other. Simple enough. Shakespeare uses the word in Henry IV part one when he says Prince Hal’s becoming King (or more poetically his “reformation”) “shall show more goodly and attract more eyes than that which hath no foil to set it off.” In other words his rowdiness and association with undesirables will make his coronation that much more spectacular. If his kingship was taken foregranted, his ascension would seem commonplace, but with a foil he’ll strike awe in his observers. Everything is relative, and when something has an obvious foil, it catches our attention (much like a peice of foil would in the sun). When we look at the title of this comedy, the main word is ‘Dream’. Dreams are chaotic and capricious, and so is the main plot of this play, but in ordefor us to appreciate the chaos of this work fully, we have to start with rigidity and order. This is why Shakespeare starts the play severe and stately. See, the first scene serves as a foil to all of the consummate craziness to ensue, and the more stern and rigid the first scene is, the funnier the rest seems to be because we don’t expect it. Even though this would be better described as contrast because foils are only used to decribe characters, it is still a foil in the sense that it aggrandizes the funniness by having an unfunny beginning. A man of action would make Hamlet look all the more indecisive; just like Shakespeare himself says the purpose of a foil is to “set it off”. My point in talking about foils is to always be on the lookout for them. Whether they are in characters, scenes, or plots,–costumes, music, or lighting, they are everywhere in Shakespeare. If we can recognize when a foil is being used; we can then question why, and gain insight into how Shakespeare wrote so masterfully.