Essay written by Annie W.
The forest outside Athens is filled with changelings, magic, and ancient myth: in other words, the stage is set. The night is silent and still as four mortals alternately hate and love, monarchs of the faerie world clash wills, and the mischief of one irrepressible woodland sprite weaves a spell over all. The breath of the darkness is lit with the glow of foxfire; hearts are broken and mended within the span of short hours. In the bower of the Faerie Queen a man transformed by magic slumbers peacefully. The pen of William Shakespeare has captured the imagination and hearts of audiences and readers alike across the world and through the decades, but his classic romantic comedy, A Midsummer Night?s Dream, offers something much more profound. Shakespeare has found insight into the heart, and, through his verse, best exemplifies the complicated and capricious emotions found there. The play, much like reality, is sprinkled throughout with gems of humor, and it will continue to fascinate as long as there is love.
Shakespeare?s characters are certainly the most important part of A Midsummer Night?s Dream. All action must be carried out through them; all ideas must be transported to the audience through their moves and dialogue. The first and most obvious characters are the four mortal lovers. The women, Helena and Hermia, are respectively tall and fair, short and dark; there are no other notable differences between them. The men, Lysander and Demetrius, have no differences in personality that are remarked upon in the text of the play. Outside the walls of Athens, inside the enchanted forest, the courts of Oberon, king of the faeries, and Titania, his queen, hold sway. The two magistrates quarrel often, but know they are meant for each other, no matter how they scowl. Their adventures include Bottom, a town actor turned into an ass by Oberon to seek revenge on Titania. The last major role in Dream is Robin Goodfellow, more commonly known as Puck. He is mischievous and playful; his role in the faerie court is to entertain Oberon and run his errands, as he tells the faeries in Act 2 when he is introduced.
In human nature and all its facets, there is a certain amount of inherent mirth, including sarcasm, and Shakespeare does not neglect this mirth in his writing. First, humor is used as a sort of release valve. When the emotional tension begins to run too high, one of the characters will utilize this humor, as does Lysander to Demetrius in a heated exchange over the hand of Hermia:
You have her father?s love, Demetrius;
Let me have Hermia?s, do you marry him.
This keeps the action interesting but not overly dramatic. The queen of the faeries, Titania, is one of the most dignified characters in the play. Shakespeare arranges for her to fall in love with Bottom, transformed into an ass. The acting group to which Bottom belongs before and after his transformation is performing their own modified version of ?Pyramus and Thisbe,? a folktale that Shakespeare has changed to suit his purposes, and the great mess they make of it in front of the duke Theseus on his wedding day is one of the most famous comic moments in history. This performance is given at the end of the play, after everything is righted, and encourages the audience to laugh and understand that all can be good. Without the laughter, the play could not have had a truly happy ending.
The four lovers show no distinguishing features or personalities. By presenting the lovers as interchangeable, Shakespeare displays and probes the mysteries of how lovers find differences- compelling, life-shaping differences- when there seem to be only likenesses. Helena and Hermia differ only in height and complexion, and both are thought to be beautiful:
How happy some o?er other some can be!
Through Athens I am thought as fair as she.
Helena remarks, commenting on her sad situation when Demetrius forsakes her for Hermia. The male lovers are so devoid of description, be it of personality or physical traits, that they may as well be bald, bad-tempered midgets. However, this serves Shakespeare very well.
At the beginning of the plot, three of the lovers have created a triangle with Hermia at the apex and Helena excluded. Both men worship the ground Hermia walks on, though Helena is in every way her equal. As the story progresses, the triangles shift magically, and none of the participants notice. In life, people are often blind to the fact that reason had nothing to do with their decisions. Lysander, when he falls in love with Helena, attributes it to the fact that his heart was immature when he loved Hermia.
Not Hermia, but Helena I love.
Who will not change a raven for a dove?
The will of man is by his reason swayed,
And reason says you are the worthier maid.
Things growing are not ripe until their season,
So I, being young, till now not ripe to reason.
In A Midsummer Night?s Dream, couples that are meant to be together end up together. Although the world today seems to thrive on divorce, true love is still very much a human ideal. People long to find the one they can love forever, and in Dream, through the insight of Shakespeare, true love is actualized. Oberon and Titania fight but eventually rejoin. Oberon longs for a beautiful changeling boy of Titania?s court; he is the most beautiful mortal ever seen by the faeries, and Oberon takes it as a personal insult when Titania refuses to relinquish him. Titania knows of Oberon?s many mortal affairs, including Hippolyta, the fianc?e of the duke. This makes her incredibly jealous and bitter, even though she herself had an affair with the duke, so she keeps the boy to herself. To Oberon she claims she keeps him because his mother was a devotee of hers, not willing to admit that his unfaithfulness bothers her. But when all is said and done, they are reconciled.
When the triangle of love first shifts, and Hermia is left alone, Oberon and the mischievous Puck are responsible. Oberon overhears a conversation between Demetrius and Helena as they wander the woods searching for Hermia and Lysander.
Tempt not too much the hatred of my spirit,
For I am sick when I do look on thee.
And I am sick when I look not on you.
On a pure whim, Oberon orders Puck to help Helena, and make Demetrius magically love her with the juice of the herb ?love-in-idleness? while he sleeps. However, Puck anoints the wrong set of eyelids, those belonging to Lysander, already loved and in love, and a grand confusion ensues. Oberon realizes Puck?s mistake and has everything set right again, with one exception. He destroys the triangle and has Demetrius love Helena, as was his original intention. Puck blesses the couple as he corrects their love vision on Oberon?s command:
Robin Goodfellow (Puck)
And the country proverb known
That every man should take his own.
Jack shall have Jill
Naught shall go ill
The man will have his mare again and all shall be well.
Love, or what is more commonly known as love, can take hold in an instant and feel very much like magic. The lovers in A Midsummer Night?s Dream do indeed gain and lose their love through magic, the juice of the flower Puck smears on their eyelids as they sleep. None of them realize what has taken hold of them, but merely go with their emotions, as humans are wont to do. No one even notices the triangles have shifted with outside help until Oberon sees all of them together and discovers Puck?s mistake:
What hast thou done? Thou hast mistaken quite
And laid the love juice on some truelove?s sight.
Love has always been a reason for lost friendship. The human mentality looks first for a mate, then for friends. The same holds true with Shakespeare?s characters. Helena and Hermia were once close childhood friends, but each immediately suspects the other of foul play when it comes to matters of the heart. Hermia is the first to cry betrayal, but the two almost end up in physical violence, if not for the intervention of the men:
How low am I, thou painted maypole? Speak!
How low am I? I am not yet so low
But that my nails can reach into thine eyes.
I pray you, though you mock me, gentlemen,
Let her not hurt me. I was never curst;
I have no gift at all in such shrewishness.
The two men, who have sworn oaths of brotherhood under the duke, are ready and willing to take up swords to fight for their ladies. Puck fortunately has the foresight to lead them away from each other so things do not lead to bloodshed.
The key to any great play is a satisfying ending. Even if an audience goes to the theater to see a tragedy, they must feel they have gotten the melancholy they came for if the play is be a success. Shakespeare provides the audience of A Midsummer Night?s Dream with a satisfyingly happy ending. As Joseph Lockett so rightfully remarked, ?Love can be a dangerous and destructive emotion, and it is only the demands of the comic plot, the machinations of the faeries, and Shakespeare?s dramatist hand above all that have brought audience and characters to a safe and comfortable conclusion.? At the wedding of the duke and the two couples, no one remembers that aught has gone wrong. They know that they are in love, and that is all they need. At the conclusion, Puck recites a well-earned monologue; he reiterates the theme of dreams and promises happiness:
If we shadows have offended
Think but this and all is mended-
That you have but slumbered here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme
No more yielding than a dream
Gentles, do not reprehend
If you pardon, we will mend.
And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearned luck
Now to scape the serpent?s tongue,
We will make amends ere long;
Else the Puck a liar call,
So goodnight unto you all.
Give me your hand, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.
A Midsummer Night?s Dream has survived as a classic because it lets people fell a little more, be a little more human than they expected. In 1592, Robert Greene slammed Shakespeare?s works in a pamphlet, calling him an ?upstart crowe [sic].? Even then, people knew that he would be great. His plays were attracting serious attention as soon as they were published, in books known as quartos, as they still attract attention today. In 1999, the second feature film of Dream was made. The play is still performed around the world regularly by a variety of companies.
When reading or seeing A Midsummer Night?s Dream performed, audiences are encouraged to look within their own hearts and minds and to the person or persons they love and wonder a little, laugh a little, and celebrate what it is to be human and in love. For these reasons and dozens more, it will endure forever in the souls of those who experience it. It will always help people understand just a little more about the strangest emotion they possess: love.