Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Sex, Satire and the Supernatural
by B. J. Rahn
A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1595) is many people’s favorite Shakespeare comedy. The whole world likes this play, and it is often used in schools to introduce children to the Bard because its fairies are perceived as charming and considered harmless. In the modern scientific era which only accepts truth based on empirical evidence, the menace of the supernatural has lost its power to frighten and intimidate to such an extent that children masquerade as ghosts, witches, and hobgoblins on Hallowe’en and demand sweets in lieu of performing mischievous tricks. This mockery of the dark powers is an index of the shedding of superstition so dominant in earlier times, and it informs most contemporary performances of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
People think of A Midsummer Night’s Dream as light-hearted and funny, full of amusing fairy high jinks, enchantments, and moonlight romance. And indeed, fairies cavort, dance and sing throughout the play and cast magic spells on young lovers forcing them to roam about aimlessly and to engage in absurd antics. That is, they behave irrationally and the audience laughs. However, a deep ironic contrast exists between manner and matter, between style and content, between the way people are behaving and what the words are actually saying. A close reading reveals that most of the laughs are generated by someone’s pain or humiliation. The superficially amusing predicaments of the young lovers, as well as that of the Fairy Queen Titania, and her rude swain Bottom, are not entirely the result of coincidence or human folly but are instigated by the King of the Fairies, Oberon, and his minion Puck through careless error and motives of vengeance and sadistic pleasure (III, ii, 363. All references are from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Oxford University Press, ed. Peter Holland, 1994).
When Demetrius and Lysander profess their ardor, they do not dwell on feelings of unrequited love; neither acts the lovelorn swain. Instead, rivalry transforms their tender feelings into hostility, anger and aggression directed at each other. They spend far more time competing with each other than doting on the women (I, i, 91-94; III, ii, 252-56). Furthermore, their wooing relies on clichés of extravagant flattery and witty compliments rather than spontaneous, heartfelt sentiment (II, ii, 119-28; III, ii, 60-61, 122-27). Of the two, Lysander seems more tender hearted in the earlier scenes with Hermia (I, i, 128-35; II, ii, 53-58), but is far more insulting and brutal in his rejection of her than Demetrius is of Helena (III, ii, 260-61, 263-64). Because of their harsh treatment of the women and because they do not reveal much emotional vulnerability, they forfeit the audience’s sympathy. The knowledge that their plight is the result of Puck’s meddling also encourages audience detachment and permits laughter.
Of the four principals, Helena suffers most. She feels intensely the pain of her unrequited passion for Demetrius who repels her quite crudely. “I love thee not, therefore pursue me not/…Hence, get thee gone, and follow me no more” (II, i, 188-194) and even threatens her: “Stay, on thy peril; I alone will go” (II, ii, 90-93). In addition, she believes that all three of her companions conspire to mock her when both of the men court her and Hermia accuses her of stealing Lysander’s love (III, ii, 145-46; 222-31). She is devastated by Hermia’s desertion and pleads with her to remember their past friendship and the bond of gender: “And will you rend our ancient love asunder,/To join with men in scorning your poor friend?” In self defense she protests her own loyalty to Hermia: “I evermore did love you, Hermia,/Did ever keep your counsels, never wrong’d you–” (III, ii, 215-16, 307-08). For her part Hermia feels not only the shock and anguish of Lysander’s lost love: “Hate me–wherefore? O me, what news, my love?/Am not I Hermia? Are not you Lysander?/I am as fair now as I was erewhile./Since night you loved me, yet since night you left me.” She also feels bitter jealousy over Helena’s betrayal: “You thief of love–what, have you come by night/And stol’n my love’s heart from him?” (III, ii, 272-75, 283-84).
So should the audience be laughing at these distressed damsels or empathizing with them? They laugh at the young men because they are callous and shallow and at Bottom because he is an oaf, but the women are neither shallow nor oafish. They are innocent victims of the human patriarchal social system, of chance, and of the whimsical caprice of the King of the Fairies.
Since it contains so much unhappiness, why do people find A Midsummer Night’s Dream so amusing? Should it even be considered a comedy? In order to settle these issues, it is necessary to address some further questions: What is the function of the fairies? What kind of a play is it? How does the setting affect plot and theme? What does the play say about love?
The Function of the Fairies
A Midsummer Night’s Dream requires a great leap of imagination, back to a time when people believed that creatures they could not see interacted with human beings and helped to shape their lives. The only way they could interpret certain experiences, phenomena, and events satisfactorily was to posit the existence of spiritual creatures both benevolent and hostile, such as angels and demons, witches and warlocks, fairies and hobgoblins. The few contemporary survivals of this belief in the supernatural include observances of Hallowe’en, largely mocking in nature, when goblins are made fun of. The custom of leaving milk and cookies out on Christmas Eve to thank Santa for delivering gifts is an act of propitiation similar to the custom of leaving a bowl of cream for Robin Goodfellow in payment for performing chores. Any parent who has participated in this ritual can understand the naive imagination behind the worldview of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The instinct to resort to the extraterrestrial to explain seemingly unnatural phenomena is also reflected in the recent attribution of crop circles to aliens from outer space.
Who is Puck a.k.a. Robin? Robin Goodfellow, hobgoblins, and pucks all “belonged to the same group of fairies, a class of rough, hairy domestic spirits characterized by their mischievousness” (Oxford, Intro. 35 cf II, i, 41-42). “…puck was a generic name, a potent genre of small devil…” (35). “Identifying Robin Goodfellow as ‘the puck’ of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is automatically to underscore the more diabolic of his antecedents” (36). “Robin was a country spirit, operating indoors and out in rural communities. His principal area of work was in the house, working to help tidy and hardworking maids with housework, ‘sweeping the house at midnight’ (hence his depiction with a broom) and grinding ‘malt or mustard’, and working equally hard to create more chaos for those who did not leave him out his reward of a bowl of milk and white bread” (37-38).
Fifty years after Shakespeare wrote A Midsummer Night’s Dream, John Milton’s “L’Allegro” (1645) refers to country folk telling tales of Robin Goodfellow around the hearth:
And lo, by friar’s lantern led,
Tells how the drudging goblin sweat
To earn his cream bowl duly set,
When in one night, ere glimpse of morn,
His shadowy flail hath threshed the corn
That ten day labourors could not end;
Then lies him down the lubber fiend,
And stretched out all the chimney’s length,
Basks at the fire his hairy strength;
And crop-full out of doors he flings,
Ere the first cock his matin rings. (ll 104-14)
In Tell-Truth’s New-year’s Gift of 1593 (Intro. 39) Robin was first associated with helping “young women to marry as they wish[ed], against the wishes of authoritarian parents who ‘do not match them with the mates their children’s eyes have chosen, but with the men their own greedy desire have found out'”. “The conjunction of Robin and the other fairies and the redefinition of Robin as also puck and hobgoblin and the decision to put Robin on stage at all were entirely new” in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (39).
However, Robin is conversationally and emotionally detached from the human lovers. This detachment enables him to view their plight with amusement rather than empathy. It is not Robin’s idea to help the young people; instead, Oberon instructs Robin to pour magic juice on the eyelids of “an Athenian youth” because he pities Helena’s lovelorn state. When Puck’s mistake causes unnecessary complications, Oberon sets matters right, but only after observing the lovers’ painful antics. On the surface it appears that the fairies cause the instability of the human passion, but it is also plausible to suggest that they merely provide an excuse for erratic behavior which would exist whether they were there or not. Human passion is inherently erratic and fairies may have been invented as a device to explain it rationally.
Romantic Comedy and Tragedy
Critics classify A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a Romantic Comedy which means it deals with young people falling in love but having to overcome obstacles (usually imposed by parents) before they can wed. They are highborn, intelligent, beautiful, charming, and rich. They are well spoken, and the witty exchanges in their conversation are often expressed in verse. These plays have happy endings with multiple marriages which affirm life through the implicit promise of children. Examples include Shakespeare’s Two Gentlemen of Verona (1591) and As You Like It (1599), in which two pairs of lovers are in conflict with the older generation and among themselves. Conflicts with the older generation occur because the parents are motivated by a desire for their children to achieve financial security and social status in marriage; whereas, the young people are guided only by sexual attraction. Given that children are regarded as property, the parents exercise control over the choice of a mate. Sometimes the aspiring male lover doesn’t have the means to support a wife, as is the case of Valentine in Two Gentlemen of Verona and Orlando in As You Like It. This sort of generational strife can lead to elopement and eventual reconciliation, as in Two Gentlemen of Verona, or to tragic consequences, as in Romeo and Juliet (1595).
Conflicts between lovers often arise from infidelity and/or unrequited love, as with Julia and Proteus in Two Gentlemen of Verona. When Proteus leaves Julia and follows his friend Valentine to learn courtly manners at the court of Milan, he discovers that his friend has fallen in love with the Duke’s daughter Sylvia and becomes attracted to her himself. Unable to bear the separation from Proteus, Julia disguises herself as a page and pursues him. Proteus’ attraction to Sylvia creates a rift between him and Valentine and causes Julia to become jealous of Sylvia. Because the Duke has already chosen a mate for Sylvia, Valentine plans to elope with Sylvia but is forced to flee Milan and seek refuge in a wild wood when the Duke learns of his scheme from Proteus. Once in the forest, Valentine becomes leader of a band of outlaws. Sylvia travels in search of Valentine; Proteus and Julia follow her. The conflicts are resolved when the Duke is reconciled with Valentine and Proteus is reunited with Julia.
Sometimes the young lover is prepared to win his beloved by force as is the case with both Proteus, who threatens to rape Sylvia when she rejects him after he saves her life in the forest, and Valentine who is prepared to fight Thurio for Sylvia’s hand. These young men regard women as property, and so the women they marry will assume the same position in marriage vis-à-vis their husbands as they did in their relationships with their fathers. This is illustrated when Valentine forgives Proteus for his betrayal and offers him “all that was mine” in Sylvia (V, i, 83). His generous “gift” is never accepted, for when Julia reveals her identity and chides Proteus for inconstancy, he repents and begs her forgiveness. The principal characters then leave the anarchic forest and return to civilized society in Milan.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream follows the conventions of Romantic Comedy by including the quartet of young lovers in conflict with the older generation and among themselves. Hermia’s father Egeus opposes the union between Hermia and Lysander not on grounds of his inferior wealth or social status but simply because he prefers Demetrius to Lysander. Unlike Valentine and Proteus, they have never been friends and now become bitter rivals. Egeus turns a deaf ear to Hermia’s pleading and is furious that Lysander has “stolen” what belongs to him, that is, his daughter’s loyalty. He appeals to Theseus, the ruling Duke of Athens, to support his right to dispose of his child as he chooses. (Egeus could well have modeled for Brabantio arguing his case against Othello in the Venetian senate. Neither accepts the official verdict or forgives his daughter.) He alienates the audience by invoking the law which condemns her to death or incarceration in a nunnery if she violates his wishes. When Lysander and Hermia try to circumvent this fate by seeking the protection of his wealthy aunt outside the city; their route lies through a wild wood. A further conflict, similar to that between Julia and Proteus, exists between Helena and Demetrius who has transferred his affections to Hermia. It is not clear whether Demetrius actually loves Hermia or has been persuaded by Egeus to aspire to an advantageous marriage. Demetrius and Helena pursue Lysander and Hermia into the forest. Later after the fairy spells are cast, further animosity arises between Demetrius and Lysander because of their rivalry over Helena (III, ii, 249, 337). Like Valentine and Proteus, Lysander and Demetrius are prepared to risk their lives to possess the women of their choice. They, too, regard women as property. Unlike the conflicts in Two Gentlemen of Verona, those in A Midsummer Night’s Dream are not resolved by the lovers themselves but only through the intervention of Oberon, who uses magic power to reverse the enchantments, and Theseus who exerts civil authority in overruling Egeus. In both plays the young lovers willingly accept the prevailing power structure and their places in it as they leave the wilderness and return to civilized society. Thus strong parallels of character and plot exist between Two Gentlemen of Verona and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which justify identifying it as a Romantic Comedy.
However, the plot of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is more complex because it includes a third, more mature, couple on the brink of marriage, Theseus and Hippolyta, whose conflicts have been resolved by force majeur before the action begins. Theseus has conquered the Queen of the Amazons in battle. As he says in Act I, “Hippolyta, I wooed thee with my sword,/And won thy love doing thee injuries./But I will wed thee in another key–/With pomp, with triumph, and with revelling” (I, i, 16-19). Unlike the young lovers, he does not fight for her against a rival suitor but against her. Hippolyta is his conquest, his trophy wife. She seems to accept her circumstances, but she never professes her love for him. Nonetheless, their nuptials become the occasion for the triple wedding at the end of the play — the conventional denouement in a Romantic Comedy.
The same kind of male dominant social/sexual power structure exists in the fairy realm. Oberon is Theseus’ equivalent in fairyland, and his behavior is quite anthropomorphic. Oberon and Titania, the King and Queen of the Fairies, are the only married couple in the play. Their relationship is suffering from strain caused by Oberon’s jealousy of Titania’s “toy boy” in the way a husband can resent his wife’s focus on, or absorption in, a child — wanting her attention on himself (II, i, 120-147, 185; III, ii, 375; IV, i, 46-49, 56-62). Even after Titania explains that her devotion is predicated on a promise to the boy’s dying mother, Oberon does not relent. It is a power struggle between them which he wins by badgering her until she gives in. By making the boy part of his own household, Oberon regains Titania’s exclusive affection as well as control over both her and the boy. He punishes her by arranging for her to dote on a donkey, so his jealous nature does not risk sexual infidelity.
Each of these mature relationships reveals problems of which the young lovers are as yet unaware and which threaten established unions and prefigure future troubles. They are a prognostication that marriage is not the idyllic state the young people imagine. In both older couples the man is prepared to be ruthless to gain and/or retain his partner. These relationships function as a counterpoint to notions of romantic love and contribute to subvert conventions of Romantic Comedy.
As with Two Gentlemen of Verona, the play also contains low comedy which produces belly laughs, that is, humour based on physical action rather than witty word play. However, the farce in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is more functional in developing theme than are the actions of Launce and his dog. The mechanicals (clowns) are unattractive, clumsy and stupid. Their names indicate their low condition and lack of physical comeliness: Snug, Snout, Starveling. Bottom’s debasement from human being to donkey represents the nadir of physical embarrassment. Their stupidity is also revealed as they mispronounce and misuse language. Bottom is the worst offender with his malapropisms: “obscenely” for “seemly” (I, ii, 100); “odious” for “odorous” (III, i, 77); “exposition” for “disposition” (IV, i, 38). He is also guilty of synesthetic or sensory confusion indicating general befuddlement when he wakes up in the forest: “I have had a dream past the wit of man to say what dream it was…The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor hisheart to report what my dream was” (IV, i, 202-210), and later as Pyramus, “I seea voice. Now will I to the chink/To spy an I can hear my Thisbe’s face” (V, i, 191-92). The most awkward moment occurs when Quince makes an utter mess of the Prologue to the play by failing to observe the proper punctuation and thereby destroying its sense (V, i, 108-117).
If we offend, it is with our good will,
That you should think, we come not to offend
But with good will. To show our simple skill,
That is the true beginning of our end.
Consider then we come but in despite.
We do not come as minding to content you,
Our true intent is. All for your delight
We are not here. That you should here repent you
The actors are at hand; and by their show
You shall know all that you are like to know.
Presented as a wedding night entertainment after the conflicts of the main characters have been resolved — a play within the play like that in Hamlet (1600) — their divertissement about Pyramus and Thisbe is actually the fifth love story. It is not a suitable story for a wedding reception. It does not have a happy ending; there is no affirmation of life. “Pyramus and Thisbe” appears to be unrelated to the main action of the play, but the story reveals a serious theme relevant to the main plot (Intro. 69). The events mirror those of Romeo and Juliet, but because the actors are behaving so foolishly, the audience is untouched by the pathos of the situation. Shakespeare burlesques his own tragedy. Pyramus and Thisbe come to grief when they decide to flee from her obstructive father who forbids their union. Just as Romeo kills himself when he discovers Juliet’s body rendered comatose by a soporific potion, so Pyramus stabs himself when he happens upon Thisbe’s bloody cloak and thinks she is dead. Both Juliet and Thisbe commit suicide over the bodies of their dead lovers. This could have been the fate of Lysander and Hermia, but there is a profound ironic disjunction between the style of performance and the subject matter which obscures the parallels with the bridal couple’s circumstances. The farce is so broad as to constitute parody (Intro. 69, 93, 95). To confuse matters further Bottom breaks character to assure Theseus the action is proceeding on course, thus shattering the dramatic illusion (Intro. 106). In Act V Shakespeare is like a conjurer who focuses the audience’s attention on one hand so they will not notice what he is doing with the other; thus,A Midsummer Night’s Dream can seem to have a happy ending while in fact it ends with a tragic love story and an object lesson for authoritarian parents. This leger de main produces a final subversion of generic convention.
Therefore although Shakespeare employs familiar characters and plot devices from Two Gentlemen of Verona in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, he also complicates the action with additional serious amorous conflicts involving more mature figures as well as burlesque which undermine the conventions of Romantic Comedy. Why does Shakespeare set up conventions of Romantic Comedy only to subvert them? Analysis of setting and structure provides further insight.
The Effect of Setting on Plot and Theme
The significant action of the play takes place in the forest outside Athens. As in Two Gentlemen in Verona and As You Like It, the forest represents a savage place outside civilized society — not just beyond its legal jurisdiction but outside the natural, rational, and moral limitations of human experience. It is a place where anything can happen. This escape from normal restrictions into a laissez faire environment may be one of the play’s great attractions for audiences. Although a mirror-image power structure seems to exist in fairyland, ruled by King Oberon and Queen Titania supported by a royal entourage similar to that of Theseus and Hippolyta, nonetheless, it is an alien space in which untoward things happen to the humans who stray within its boundaries. The events in the play could only happen in the anarchic wood.
In addition to the opposition of the magic wood with the civilized city, Shakespeare establishes other polarities which influence the action in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The setting also embodies tensions between the supernatural and the mundane, fantasy and reality, imagination and reason, dreaming and waking, passion and self control, moonshine and daylight (Intro. 100). Ultimately, the play juxtaposes antithetical value systems represented by the forest and the city contrasting the chaotic, volatile disorder of the unknown with the orderly, stable, rational order of civilized life and implicitly encouraging viewers through the characters’ behavior to reject the irrational world of dreams.
Analysis of the structure of the play discloses that the most important events occur within the forest wilderness, that lovers’ conflicts originating outside its confines are both complicated and magically resolved by the fairies Oberon and Puck within its borders. Hence, setting facilitates plot. The young people gain insight into themselves and each other, and no-one is quite the same after the adventures of this midsummer night’s dream. They try to rationalize their experience as a “dream” but cannot forget it.
The usual structure of most of Shakespeare’s comedies comprises five acts which follow a standard formal pattern:
Acts I and II introduce the characters and conflicts.
Act III contains a turning point in the plot, an irreversible decision or event, which determines the course of action
for the rest of the play.
Act IV presents the inevitable consequences of events in Act III.
Act V reveals the resolution of the conflicts.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream does not always follow this paradigm.
Act I introduces Theseus and Hippolyta and discloses their past conflict and the current conflict between Lysander, Hermia and Egeus involving Demetrius as well as that between Helena and Demetrius. Lysander and Hermia decide to elope and tell Helena who tells Demetrius. The mechanicals plan to present a wedding entertainment.
Act II discloses the conflict between Oberon and Titania over the “changeling” boy and his decision to punish her by playing a practical joke on her. He anoints her eyes with a magic potion so she will fall in love “at first sight” with whomever or whatever she sees upon waking (ii, 33-34). Lysander and Hermia are lost and decide to rest until daylight. Conflict between Demetrius and Helena is developed further (ii, 90-93) in the forest where Demetrius has gone in pursuit of Hermia. Their conflict is complicated when Puck pours magic juice on Lysander’s eyes so he falls in love with Helena “at first sight” when she rouses him (ii, 108-113). Helena thinks he mocks her. Hermia wakes and finds Lysander gone.
So far, so good — the play seems to be following the model by introducing characters and developing conflicts between parents and children and among young lovers, plus adding conflict between Oberon and Titania.
Act III at first focuses on Puck’s improving Oberon’s joke on Titania by putting an ass’s head on Bottom so she dotes on a donkey “at first sight” (i, 96-97; ii, 15-17; i, 130-34; ii, 33-34). Puck also frightens the other clowns who flee (i, 99-100; ii, 24-32). Oberon tries to correct Puck’s error by dropping magic juice on Demetrius’ eyes so he will fall in love with Helena “at first sight” (ii,104), thereby returning to his first love. Relations among the young lovers are aggravated when both men court Helena who thinks they are teasing her. Hermia is hurt by Lysander’s rejection and quarrels with Helena, accusing her of seducing Lysander, and even tries to attack her. Helena is devastated because she believes Hermia has joined the men in scorning her. When the men leave to fight it out, Oberon bids Robin to rub another herb on Lysander’s eyes, which will cancel the first charm (ii, 366-69, 450-57) and restore his love for Hermia. Hence, A Midsummer Night’s Dream departs from the model of a well made play exemplified by Two Gentlemen of Verona because Oberon takes steps to resolve the lovers’ conflicts by the end of Act III. A central conflict is not introduced at the beginning, sustained through the middle, and resolved at the end. Shakespeare has two more acts to fill after the tension involving the most interesting characters has dissipated. This situation did not make for a good evening in the theatre in his time or today. Thus, despite parallels in characterization and conflicts, analysis shows that A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a problematic play because it lacks the integrated structural design of a conventional Romantic Comedy — a serious generic subversion. Is it simply an ill constructed play or can an alternate pattern be discerned to produce organic unity?
Act IV focuses on the development of the conflict between Oberon and Titania, as she makes a fool of herself doting upon Bottom. It is resolved because Oberon has “taunted” her until she has given him the child. He releases her from the magic spell by squeezing the antidote on her eyelids (i, 61-62). Puck removes Bottom’s ass’s head (i, 63-64, 79, 83). The denouement for the lovers’ conflicts occurs when Theseus, Hippolyta, Egeus and other attendants appear. After they are awakened, the young men give an account of their adventures: Lysander of his plot to flee Athens with Hermia, and Demetrius of his rediscovery of his love for Helena. Theseus rules in favour of the young people against Egeus. Bottom also wakes up in a confused state and finds it beyond his powers to explain his dream. He is reunited with his companions and announces that their play is to be performed as a wedding entertainment.
Act V is devoted to the mechanicals’ inept enactment of the tragic story of “Pyramus and Thisbe,” which parallels that of Romeo and Juliet, but the serious content of the story is blunted by the clownish performance and a chorus of sarcastic abuse from the newlyweds (Intro. 69, 93, 95). In the epilogue Oberon blesses the nuptials and Puck asks the blessing of the audience on the play.
What do Acts IV and V accomplish? In the former the important secondary conflict between Oberon and Titania is resolved and the young lovers’ choices accepted by the outside world, thus achieving a happy conclusion. All of the individuals affected by magic tricks producing mismatched alliances “at first sight” are released to assume or resume more normal relationships. Order is restored. The main action involving the principal characters is over; the curtain could come down. So is Act V superfluous? Like Act III, the play within the play in Act V embodies a warning that meddling with love affairs can lead to pain and suffering; plus it simultaneously completes the satire on romantic love. Its reiteration of theme renders it an essential part of the drama and not an “add on” to fill out the text. Act V also merges the human and fairy realms to show that the border between them is more permeable than people realize, that interference of fairies in their lives is ubiquitous, and that they fool themselves by regarding unpredictable, erratic sexual attractions as “dreams.” Therefore, Acts IV and V help to form an integrated structure by providing resolution to secondary conflicts and completing the satire of romantic love.
If space equals emphasis, and it usually does in a play of this sort, what inferences can be drawn from the patterning of the action in A Midsummer Night’s Dream? Clearly the most important scenes take place at the heart of the play in Act III (655 ll) which contains some 224 lines more than Acts II (429 ll) and V (429 ll), and twice as many as Act I (323 ll). There are seven scenes, fewer than in any other Shakespeare play, which comprise a double frame. The first and last scenes are set at the court in Athens, the second and penultimate scenes occur at Peter Quince’s house, and the central three in the forest (Intro. 103-04). Movement from the city to the country and back again charts the temporary excursion into misrule and aberrant behavior and then a return to order and sanity. The scene bringing together the most physically grotesque and socially mismatched couple, Titania and Bottom, a Fairy Queen and an uncouth oaf, occurs at the very center of the play. In guying romantic love, Shakespeare has given the most derisive of jokes pride of place. Careful patterning to integrate plot and setting and communicate theme is evident throughout.
Furthermore, the preponderance of lines is spoken by the lovers during their ordeal in the forest. They have the most to say (309 ll or 50% of the dialogue) as well as the most intense experience, but their adventure is predominantly painful. It is only funny if the audience doesn’t take it seriously, that is, if they fail to engage in the willful suspension of disbelief which is the foundation of the compact between playwright and audience in all dramatic performances. This occurs if the audience does not focus on what the words are saying or their meaning is obscured by stage business and/or style of delivery. Although Shakespeare’s introduction of fairy magic enables the audience to distance itself from the actual feelings of the characters (to dismiss what happens as unreal or temporary), their language is intensely anguished. Both Helena and Hermia suffer greatly. They do not imagine their pain; no spell has been cast on them. Nor do the men escape unscathed. They experience homicidal rage; they are ready to kill each other. If either had died, the death would have been real. An acute ironic disjunction exists between style and substance. The lovers are suffering but their antics are regarded as funny. Why? Actually, the audience laughs at excesses of romantic love. A possible explanation and/or justification of directorial interpretation and audience reaction lies in the use of dramatic irony. The audience knows that the lovers’ troubles have resulted from Oberon’s benevolent desire to help lovelorn Helena which has gone awry and that he has the power to reverse the results of Puck’s errors and takes steps to do so — like a deus ex machina. Dramatic irony inspires confidence that everything will turn out right in the end.
Much Ado about Love
What does the audience find funny about romantic love? What is being parodied? A primary target is the sentimental notion of falling in love at first sight. The crux of the comedy occurs in Act III when the magic spells create misalliances by causing the wrong people to fall in love “at first sight.” Attributed to Cupid’s random arrows in classical times, love at first sight was given its most romantic expression in Dante’s celebration of his love for Beatrice. Dante’s theory of love at first sight was based on the belief that the eyes are the windows of the soul and that when one gazes into the eyes of one’s true love for the first time, through some mystical process one recognizes one’s soul mate. Thus love at first sight can be regarded as a fatal attraction.
This concept has become a mainstay of romantic literature over the centuries. Shakespeare employs the Dantean interpretation to greatest effect inRomeo and Juliet but alternately uses the classical tradition of Cupid wreaking havoc in A Midsummer Night’s Dream when Oberon and Puck cast spells on Lysander, Demetrius, and Titania who inconveniently fall in love with the first person they see upon waking. Their infatuation lacks the mystery of recognizing a soul mate upon first acquaintance. Instead, Shakespeare invokes a more limited definition of the phrase and thereby reduces it to absurdity. He satirizes love at first sight by placing the characters in ridiculous situations which lead to absurd behavior. Lysander’s first glimpse of Helena causes him to abandon Hermia, which breaks her heart. The same thing happens to Demetrius which increases the hostility between the men and causes Helena to feel persecuted. The most extreme instance occurs when Titania becomes besotted with Bottom. Hence love at first sight results in contretemps rather than felicity. Their compulsory attraction exists ungoverned by will, reason, or spirit. It has been induced by artificial means and more closely simulates the results of Cupid’s capricious arrows than the exalted condition described by Dante.
The experience of the enchanted characters constitutes an attack on the concept of love at first sight, and by extension the scenes in the forest function as a parody of romantic love in general. Shakespeare mocks love at first sight by focusing principally on physical attraction alone; this very narrow focus produces limited insight into mind and heart. The charms are created by rubbing a magic substance on the exterior of the eye and produce a superficial physical attraction. Their love is “only skin deep.” It has no spiritual depth. Because the male lovers focus on physical attributes of the women, they do not “see” into the hearts and souls of the beloved. Although Lysander insists he is guided by reason in rejecting Hermia and choosing Helena, his protestations are clearly not true. And “once their eyes are opened,” they regard their former attraction as an aberration, expressed most clearly by Titania: “My Oberon, what visions have I seen!/Methought I was enamoureed of an ass./…O, how mine eyes do loathe his visage now!” (IV, i, 75-79). Titania refers to visions in her dreams but rejects the living embodiment of her beloved. The characters’ irrational infatuations encourage the audience to regard romantic love at first sight as being as unreliable as a dream.
The actual references to love at first sight are uttered in derisive tones by Oberon and Puck as they invoke the charms. The lovers do not use the term but are clearly not only under its spell but also working within its tradition when they court their ladies. The allusions are clear in Lysander’s first words to Helena: “And run through fire I will for thy sake,/Transparent Helena, nature shows art/That through thy bosom makes me see thy heart” (II, ii, 109-12). In the same speech he claims: “Reason becomes the marshal of my will,/And leads me to your eyes, where I o’erlook/Love’s stories written in love’s richest book” (II, ii, 126-28). However, Helena casts no loving glances his way. In the face of her resistance, he responds with the conventional sighs and tears of the passionate lover.
Shakespeare makes fun of the exaggerated style of Elizabethan sonneteers in the elaborate compliments bestowed by Lysander and Demetrius as part of the romantic love tradition. They speak in verse but their sentiments are hackneyed and imagery clichéd. That Lysander is far more skilled at this game than Demetrius is evident as early as Act I: “How now, my love? Why is your cheek so pale?/How chance the roses there do fade so fast?” Hermia replies: “Belike for want of rain, which I could well/Beteem them from the tempest of my eyes” (I, i, 128-31). This exchange is followed by a discussion of all the obstacles besetting the course of true love. In Act II, ii, 51-58, Lysander and Hermia demonstrate their skill at witty word play as they banter in couplets about their sleeping arrangements, invoking both meanings of the verb “to lie”. Comparing her to a goddess, Demetrius uses clichéd imagery in a catalogue of Helena’s features beginning with her eyes, “O Helen, goddess, nymph, perfect, divine!/To what, my love, shall I compare thine eyne?” (III, ii, 137-38). Demetrius focuses firmly on her physical beauty with no reference to heart and soul.
Stichomythia, a series of rhymed lines spoken alternately by two characters, was used to great advantage in Romeo and Juliet to reveal the intimate bond between the lovers when they express their passion as one mind, one heart, one soul. But in A Midsummer Night’s Dream stichomythia functions ironically to register envy when Helena yearns for Hermia’s ability to attract Demetrius and Hermia claims smugly that the more she discourages him, the more his passion increases (I, i, 194-201). It reflects antipathy as Demetrius spurns Helena (Act II (ii, 90-91) and as Lysander rejects Hermia (III, ii, 185-86). When rivalry appears between Lysander and Demetrius (III, ii, 174-75, 254-55), the interlinked lines disclose an intense negative bond between the speakers.
The relationships of the various couples are used to convey theme in condemning the excesses of romantic love. All of the principal characters are lovers, but they are not loving; that is, none of them loves unselfishly. The quartet of young lovers is in the grip of an arbitrary “involuntary, irresistible attraction” (Intro. 65) which they call love. Such is the nature of teenage passion, which is intense yet unstable and subject to sudden changes such as those experienced by Demetrius who shifts his affections from Helena to Hermia and back again, as well as Lysander who professes to love Hermia only to abandon her for Helena and then revert to his original attachment. Despite extravagant protestations of eternal devotion these young men are emblems of male inconstancy and serve to discredit the romantic lover. Moreover, both young men view their prospective mates as property to be secured by force if necessary. As for Helena, her servile devotion to Demetrius renders her an object of derision. Helena’s masochism distorts the romantic image of the patient Griselda to a ludicrous level (II, i, 187 ff 244), and her reluctance to abandon her role as victim when Demetrius courts her in the forest demonstrates her low self-esteem. The bond of friendship or sisterly love between Helena and Hermia is vulnerable to sexual jealousy and quickly crumbles when Hermia prefers to believe that Helena has seduced Lysander rather than that he left her of his own accord. Finally, the parental feelings of Egeus have little of love in them. The danger of his attitude is expressed in the story of Pyramus and Thisbe.
In the older generation, Theseus has conquered Hippolyta in battle, has beaten her into submission. He has a history of rape and abandonment. Violence does not usually win hearts, but he settles for submission rather than love. Hippolyta never expresses love for him. Although claiming to love Titania, Oberon is possessive and jealous. He torments Titania until she gives up her page-boy to him.
Although the three weddings at the end of the play seem to be life-affirming, none of the couples offers an unblemished model of true love. Instead, the play reveals love to be an uncomfortable condition plagued with problems both inside and outside the limits of civilized society. All five love affairs are fraught with difficulties. The human condition is made sport of in a cruel vein excused as the pranks of fairies, and the comedy’s happy ending is equivocal.
Regarding the fairies, although Oberon is generally well intentioned toward the human lovers, he is mean-spirited and cruel in dealing with his consort. Puck is insensitive and sadistic, taking pleasure from the pain his mistake causes. Moreover, he increases Titania’s humiliation by fitting Bottom with a donkey’s head. The fairies’ mischief is responsible for the fickle shifts of sexual attraction among the young people in the forest and their resultant suffering. Or perhaps Oberon and Puck merely provide a pretext for the erratic passions of the lovers. Although the characters and conflicts of the young lovers resemble those of Romantic Comedy, their feelings are callow and selfish. The introduction of the two more mature couples, who experience serious problems resulting from male sexual aggression, jealousy and possessiveness, serves to demonstrate the complexity of social/sexual relationships and thereby undermine the tenets of romantic love. For example, that once united, lovers live happily ever after. They also demonstrate the adverse position of women.
The enchanted forest provides a magical setting for untoward events and lends them credibility, but structural analysis also reveals careful integration of setting and action to communicate theme and subvert the conventions of Romantic Comedy by mocking the concept of love at first sight in the plight of the lovers in the most important scenes in Act III. In addition, strategically placed at the very heart of the play lies the ridiculous love scene between mismatched Titania and Bottom. The theme continues in Act IV with the reconciliation of Oberon and Titania, and culminates in Act V with the burlesque of the ill-fated true lovers Pyramus and Thisbe. Generically, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is not really a Romantic Comedy but a satire of romantic love using the sentimental conventions of Romantic Comedy for its own subversion.
The audience laughs at the anguished antics of the young lovers and at Titania and Bottom because dramatic irony provides insight into the difference between seeming and being, fantasy and reality. They know that the misalliances are all a misunderstanding that Oberon can and will put right again. They laugh at the distorted portrayal of “Pyramus and Thisbe” because the insensitive, physically clumsy, ignorant clowns reduce it to travesty. But beneath the comic treatment lies the realization that romantic love is not the stuff of real life. And when the fairies hover over the wedding feast, implicit in their presence is the possibility of their mischievous interference in human affairs in the future, a hint that the lovers’ troubles may not be over.
All references are from Peter Holland (ed.), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Oxford University Press, 1994)
Professor B. J. Rahn teaches English literature at Hunter College in New York. She also gives courses at the Renaissance academy in Naples, Florida. She has an international reputation for her teaching, researching, and writing about crime fiction for over two decades. She has published articles in journals and reference books such as The Armchair Detective, St. James Guide to Crime and Mystery Writing,Scribner’s Mystery and Suspense Writers: The Literature of Crime,Detection, and Espionage,The Dictionary of Literary Biography and the Oxford Companion to Crime and Mystery Writing.
Professor Rahn also leads detective walking tours. In the UK, the tours visit sites in the lives and fiction of authors such as Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, and Margery Allingham. In the USA, the tours feature New York authors Dashiell Hammett, Rex Stout, Linda Fairstein and Edgar Allan Poe. Virtual tours are available as slide lectures.
She is a member of the Mystery Writers of America, the Crime Writers Association in the UK as well as the Sherlock Holmes Society of London, the Dorothy L. Sayers Society, and the Margery Allingham Society.
Using analytical skills usually applied to writing and lecturing about detective fiction (see www.crimecritic.com), Professor Rahn focuses her lens on one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays. In a new article for London Grip, she outlines a darker interpretation of a play conventionally regarded as mere light entertainment.
21-2 September 08