Balanced Patterns of Character and Plot in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream
David K. Vaughan
Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream (MND) is probably his best-known and most popular play, apparently written to celebrate the marriage of a lord and lady of upper-class status. There are many reasons for its popularity, in the theater as in the schoolhouse: it is funny (even hilarious, when well staged), and it is relatively short (for Shakespeare). It is also full of clever dialogue with many memorable lines. It is easily playable, in that it does not require an elaborate stage: no trap doors, no balcony, no discovery area. But for me, its greatest appeal lies in the contrasts and balances it establishes, linked to central thematic issues that recur in almost every one of his thirty-eight plays.
Simply stated, the central issue of MND, and of many other Shakespeare plays, is the tension between individual desire for personal freedom and the need to allow personal freedoms to be limited by cultural practices or laws established by the State. I capitalize the word State, even though the particular state that is established in each play may be different from that established in other plays. The State of MND is not the State of Romeo and Juliet or the State of the Merchant of Venice or the State of Julius Caesar or that of Cymbeline. But all of these plays (and others) establish states against which the central characters struggle to establish both their individuality and their willingness (or reluctance) to adapt their individuality to the demands of the state. In the history plays, of course, the state is England itself (or the England of Shakespeare’s imagining, but then all of these states are of Shakespeare’s imagining). The idea of the individual’s struggle for self-identity and acceptance by the state is my central topic in my discussion of Shakespeare’s plays.
The tension between individual desire and the demands of the state is established in the first fifty lines of MND. No sooner do Theseus and Hippolyta appear on stage and announce that they are shortly to be wed than Egeus arrives, appealing to Theseus to use his power as Prince of Athens to help persuade his daughter Hermia that, according to Athenian law, she must either accept her father’s choice of suitors or be put to death. Egeus prefers Demetrius, but Hermia loves Lysander. In the discussion that follows, Hermia, behaving in an unseemly and even inappropriate manner suitable to Athenian practice, defies her father’s wishes. She refuses to accept what appears to be the preferred mode of familial authority, and even though she cannot alter the law of Athens, she resists that as well. When they are left alone, Lysander suggests that they escape from Athens and run off to his aunt’s home where they will find a safe haven, away from the “strict Athenian law.”
They run away from Athens and then lose themselves in the Athenian wood, a natural State, governed by (or at least impacted by the actions of) Oberon and Titania. In the unfamiliar natural environment they are joined by their counterparts, Helena and Demetrius, and for the next three acts of the play, all four engage in a confused effort to identify, justify, and claim their true loves. They are confounded in their efforts by the comic miscalculations of Puck, Oberon’s assistant, who places some magic love potion on assorted eyes. Oberon has put Puck up to this task because he is unhappy with the treatment that he has recently been receiving from his romantic counterpart, Titania, and hopes that his reliance on potions will be able to cause a change of heart in Titania, or at least exact some revenge for the ill treatment he believes she has been giving him. These individuals are joined in their woodsy environment by a troupe of Athenian workmen, led by Peter Quince and Bottom, who are attempting to rehearse a play which they hope will be selected by Theseus as court entertainment during the post-wedding festivities. Most readers and theater-goers who know the play are familiar with these details.
In the effort to establish her own identity within the state, in this case, to seek the partner of her choice, Hermia is willing to challenge the authority of her father and of the State and, if she cannot change the mind of her father or the strictures of the State, she determines to depart from it, along with Lysander, who shares her outlook and her concerns. The conflict of individual desire and demands of the State could not be more clearly presented, and it is the resolution of this conflict that occupies the remainder of the play. In this play the authority of the State is challenged as well as the traditional authority of the family. Shakespeare thus sets up the contrast of authority and individual desire, a contrast of order and disorder, in which the laws of the State and of familial authority represent established order and actions taken to avoid conformance represent disorder.
This contrast is transferred to the setting as well: Athens, the location of orderly behavior, a world of social and community order, is contrasted with the woods surrounding Athens, a world of disorder. In the world of the play, the disorder that is present in the woods is only too evident in the actions of the four young lovers as they confusedly pursue their supposed true loves. (Actually, the men show more confusion than the women; more about this aspect later.) At play’s end, the disorder is resolved and the four young lovers are united with their appropriate partners. To show the centrality of this theme to the play, Shakespeare establishes contrasts between order and disorder shown in the actions of the four young lovers, contrasts which are mirrored in the actions of the other sets of paired lovers in the play: Theseus and Hippolyta and Oberon and Titania, and even in the characters of Pyramus and Thisbe, in the play that is presented in the fifth act by Peter Quince and his company of tradesmen actors.
But first we need to see how firmly the constraints of the Athenian law are set in the opening scene of the play. When Egeus approaches Theseus, he is agitated that his daughter Hermia will not agree to marry Demetrius, his choice of suitors, because she has been “bewitched” by the attention of Lysander, and he appeals to the man who represents the law in Athens:
I beg the ancient privilege of Athens:
As she is mine, I may dispose of her,
Which shall be either to this gentleman [Demetrius]
Or to her death, according to our law
Immediately provided in that case.
For us in the audience, what is supposed to have been a light-hearted comedy immediately takes on a somber mood as we contemplate the impact of Egeus’ words. We have two nearly simultaneous reactions: we cannot believe that Egeus is serious in his intention to put his daughter to death if she will not marry the man of his choice, and we cannot believe that Athens would have such a harsh law on its statutes in the first place.
To further our dismay, not one of the individuals on the stage seems to think that Egeus’ request or the law itself is in any way inappropriate. Hippolyta says nothing and Theseus gives the answer that Egeus expects to hear:
Be advised, fair maid,
To you your father should be as a god,
One that composed your beauties; yes, and one
To whom you are but as a form in wax
By him imprinted and within his power
To leave the figure or disfigure it.
After a moment or two of resistance, Hermia asks Theseus to describe her options:
But I beseech your Grace that I may know
The worst that may befall me in this case,
If I refuse to wed Demetrius.
To which Theseus responds,
Either to die the death, or to abjure
Forever the society of men.
Then Theseus provides a third option, which is to
Endure the livery of a nun,
For aye [ever] to be in shady cloister mewed,
To live a barren sister all your life. . . .
Hermia’s response is immediate:
So will I grow, so live, so die, my lord,
Ere I will yield my virgin patent up
Unto his lordship, whose unwished yoke
My soul consents not to give sovereignty.
Theseus, the enlightened ruler that he is, gives Hermia four days, that is, until the date set for his wedding to Hippolyta, to consider her options before giving him a final answer:
Upon that day either prepare to die
For disobedience to your father’s will,
Or else to wed Demetrius, as he would,
Or on Diana’s altar to protest
For aye austerity and single life.
It is significant that Hermia thinks of her unwanted union with Demetrius as an “unwished yoke” to which her “soul consents not to give sovereignty”: a marriage to Demetrius would be the same as agreeing to live under the ruling power of Demetrius, a sovereign whose society and governance she absolutely rejects. Hermia’s equation of marriage and sovereignty is one of many versions of the link between State and familial authority with which the play is centrally concerned.
Many readers have wished to explore Elizabethan notions of the bonds of marriage and the power of fathers to determine their daughters’ husbands. Doubtless there was a custom of that nature, especially for families of wealth and political status. But the extent of that practice in Elizabethan England need not concern us here; all that we need to know is that Shakespeare has established this particular law of Athens as the central barrier to the happiness of Hermia and Lysander. This is the primary constraint of the world of MND. It is likely that many in Shakespeare’s audience would have been as appalled as we are to think that a law of this nature would be accepted without question in the world of the play. But the merit of that law is not a subject of debate in the play. Shakespeare is not asking us what we might think of such a law. This central concept—the strict law that governs the lives and actions of its characters and forces them to alter their behaviors to live under its constraints—occurs repeatedly in Shakespeare’s most meaningful plays. The implications of this constraint are profound, and we will consider them in more detail in our readings of the other plays. The idea of living under strict laws, laws that might have been arbitrarily or even unfairly established, would have been a familiar concept to Elizabethan audiences, given the uncertain political and religious climate in which they had been living for the past fifty years.
After Lysander and Hermia decide to run away from Athens to the house of his doting aunt, far from the reach of Athenian law, Hermia tells Helena of their plan, believing that Helena will be pleased to learn that Demetrius will no longer be distracted by the presence of Hermia. When Helena informs Demetrius of the situation, however, he immediately decides to follow Lysander and Hermia, and Helena follows him. All four lovers eventually meet in the Woods surrounding Athens.
The events of Act 2 take place in the woods surrounding Athens (or, more accurately, on the stage that we are to understand represents the woods surrounding Athens), and we are promptly introduced to the two sovereign figures whose actions control the effects of Nature, Oberon and Titania. Unlike Theseus and Hippolyta, who seem in happy accord, Oberon and Titania demonstrate profound discord. They have become estranged because Titania refuses to give her changeling boy, the child of a “votress” of Titania, to Oberon, who desires the child to be a member of his royal train. The effects of their discord are causing a severe imbalance in the natural world. The impact of their discord in the natural world does not result in drought, disease, and death, adverse effects of the kind that afflict Thebes at the opening of Oedipus Rex. Rather, the result is just the opposite: an overabundance of moisture. As a result, the fields are sodden, the crops are rotting, the livestock suffer, the seasons alter, and normal human activities are interrupted. Titania summarizes the situation in an extended exposition (I have placed breaks in the passage to emphasize its separate issues; in the text it is one continuous passage):
And never, since the middle summer’s spring,
Met we on hill, in dale, forest, or mead,
By paved fountain or by rushy brook,
Or in the beached margent of the sea,
To dance our ringlets to the whistling wind,
But with thy brawls thou hast disturbed our sport.
Therefore the winds, piping to us in vain,
As in revenge, have sucked up from the sea
Contagious fogs; which, when falling in the land,
Hath every pelting river made so proud,
That they have overborne their continents.
The ox hath therefore stretched his yoke in vain,
The plowman lost his sweat, and the green corn
Hath rotted ere his youth attained a beard;
The fold stands empty in the drowned field,
And crows are fatted with the murrion flock;
The nine men’s morris is filled up with mud;
And the quaint mazes in the wanton green,
For lack of tread, are indistinguishable.
The human mortals want their winter here;
No night is now with hymn or carol blest.
Therefore the moon, the governess of floods,
Pale in her anger, washes all the air,
That rheumatic diseases do abound.
And thorough this distemperature we see
The seasons alter: hoary-headed frosts
Fall in the fresh lap of the crimson rose,
And on old Hiems’ thin and icy crown
An odorous chaplet of sweet summer buds
Is, as in mockery, set. The spring, the summer,
The childing autumn, angry winter, change
Their wonted liveries; and the mazed world,
By their increase, now knows not which is which.
Titania makes clear the cause of these strange alterations in nature:
And this same progeny of evils comes
From our debate, from our dissension;
We are their parents and their original.
I have quoted this passage at length not because it shows Shakespeare’s imagistic language at its vibrant best (though that is not a bad reason to quote it), but because it is detailed and instructive. Every detail of this laundry list of natural aberrations is indicative of discord on an environmental scale. Though it does not advance the action of the play at all, this passage is essential to our understanding of the broader issues which the play addresses, especially the effects of romantic discord; the higher the social status of the individuals, the more profound are the effects.
It is worth noting that it is Titania who provides this summary, not Oberon; she appears to be more personally troubled by their disagreements than Oberon, who, after their meeting results in no solution to his problem, embarks on a plan to embarrass and humiliate Titania. Oberon dispatches Puck to bring him the juice of the “love-in-idleness” flower, which has the magical effect of causing any person, on whose eyes the drops of this liquid are placed while sleeping, to fall in love with the next living entity who comes into view. Oberon intends to deposit drops of this potion on the eyelids of the sleeping Titania, so that when she awakes, the next living thing that she sees,
Be it on lion, bear, or wolf, or bull,
On meddling monkey, or on busy ape,
She shall pursue it with the soul of love.
This device seems to be a rather mean trick to play on his erstwhile partner, but he hopes that while she is in this altered state, he will “make her render up her page to me.”
While Puck is gone on his errand, Oberon witnesses the arrival of Demetrius and Helena, who are the first of the four lovers to arrive in the woods. Oberon sees Demetrius repeatedly spurn Helena’s affections, and when Puck returns, he tells Puck to place some of the magic potion on the eyes of the “Athenian” as he sleeps. It is interesting that while Oberon is concerned to resolve the discord he perceives between Demetrius and Helena, he is determined to aggravate, not ameliorate, the situation that exists between him and Titania. But the next “Athenian” Puck sees is Lysander, not Demetrius, and following Oberon’s directions, Puck places some drops of the potion on Lysander’s eyes after he and Hermia, fatigued after their wanderings in the woods, lie down to sleep. As Lysander and Hermia lie asleep, Demetrius and Helena come onstage again, continuing to disagree as before. Demetrius departs leaving an unhappy Helena behind. At that moment Lysander awakes and sees Helena, and under the influence of the potion, declares his love for her, nicely completing her unfinished rhyme:
But who is here? Lysander? On the ground?
Dead? Or asleep? I see no blood, no wound.
Lysander, if you live, good sir, awake.
And run through fire I will for thy sweet sake.
Transparent Helena! Nature shows art,
That through thy bosom makes me see thy heart.
And having declared his love for her, he immediately declares his intention of dealing with the man of her affections, Demetrius:
Where is Demetrius? O, how fit a word
Is that vile name to perish on my sword!
An additional aspect of confusion can be seen when Lysander thinks that the name of Demetrius is the same as the person of Demetrius.
Throughout Act 3 the situation among the four lovers is confounded further, as Puck deposits the potion on sleeping Demetrius’ eyes, and he wakes to the sight of Helena and declares his love for her. Now Helena, who initially had neither man interested in her, now has two, as both Demetrius and Lysander vie for her affections. Demetrius and Lysander declare their love for her in rhymed defiance:
I say I love thee more than he can do.
If thou say so, withdraw and prove it too.
Most theatrical productions have both Demetrius and Lysander armed with short swords, and at this point they are about to “withdraw” (step offstage) and fight, apparently to the death, for the right to claim Helena’s hand.
However, their sudden changes of heart convince Helena that they have agreed to play an unkind joke on her, and she rebuffs their attention, growing increasingly angry. When Hermia appears, Helena begins to believe that she has joined in the joke with Lysander and Demetrius and promptly grows angry at Hermia, who has until now been her best friend. The potential conflict between Demetrius and Lysander is temporarily forgotten as a heated argument develops between Hermia and Helena:
Hermia [to Helena, thinking Helena has stolen Lysander’s affections]:
O me! You juggler! You canker blossom!
You thief of love! What, have you come by night
And stol’n my love’s heart from him?
Helena [responding to Helena’s accusations]:
Fine, I’ faith!
Have you no modesty, no maiden shame,
No touch of bashfulness? What, will you tear
Impatient answers from my gentle tongue?
Fie, fie! You counterfeit, you puppet, you!
The disagreements between the two women and the two men grow in intensity until Oberon intervenes, causing all four to leave the stage in different directions in an atmosphere of anger and hostility.
Oberon and Puck have been observing the scene; Oberon observes, with a wonderfully ironic comment, that “these lovers seek a place to fight.” Determined to prevent further damage, he tells Puck to “overcast the night,” darken the light of the moon, spread a fog throughout the woods, and call to all four youths in different voices until they lie down in exhaustion to sleep. Then, Oberon directs Puck to deposit some drops of a curative herb on the eyes of Demetrius and Lysander, which will return their normal vision. Puck obeys Oberon’s order.
In Act 4 Theseus and Hippolyta appear, accompanied by Egeus; they have been hunting early in the morning, pursuing another activity to help them pass the time until their marriage. They discover the four youths sleeping. Theseus asks them to account for their presence in the woods:
[To Lysander and Demetrius] I know you two are rival enemies.
How comes this gentle concord in the world,
That hatred is so far from jealousy,
To sleep by hate, and fear no enmity?
Lysander responds that he and Hermia had come to the woods “to avoid the peril of the Athenian law,” at which comment an outraged Egeus interrupts,
[To Theseus]: Enough, enough, my lord; you have enough.
I beg the law, the law, upon his head.
But Demetrius announces that he now loves Helena, to whom, he admits, he had been previously betrothed:
The object and the pleasure of mine eye,
Is only Helena. To her, my lord,
Was I betrothed ere I saw Hermia;
But like a sickness did I loathe this food;
But, as in health, come to my natural taste,
Now do I wish it, love it, long for it,
And will forevermore be true to it.
Theseus overrides Egeus’ demand and announces that the four lovers will join Theseus and Hippolyta’s wedding ceremonies planned for that evening. The main plot issues in the play seem to be resolved and all that remains is to decide the wedding entertainment for all three pairs of newlyweds to be performed in the fifth act.
When asked who is to perform the play of Pyramus and Thisby, Philostrates (a role traditionally thought to have been played by Shakespeare) answers that the players are
Hard-handed men, that work in Athens here,
Which never labored in their minds till now.
And as a result, the play, in Philostrates’ opinion, is appallingly bad. Against Philostrates’ expressed wish, Theseus selects the play of Pyramus and Thisby to be performed.
We have seen the six earnest tradesmen, Peter Quince, Bottom, Snug, Starveling, Snout, and Flute, throughout the play, as they have been making their futile attempts to rehearse the play. These characters have been wandering around the margins of the main plot for the first four acts but now are ready to perform. Their performance of Pyramus and Thisby in the fifth act of Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of the most hilarious episodes in the Shakespearean inventory. The players, new to this relatively sophisticated form of entertainment, are at pains to ensure that the audience recognizes the difference between the play and real life, between appearance and reality. Bottom is especially concerned that the audience not be shocked or surprised by the presence of the Lion and the deaths of Pyramus and Thisby that the action of the play requires.
The play of Pyramus and Thisby is in the style of an old morality play, of the kind that Shakespeare must have seen in his youth, with a Prologue that announces the action of the play and introduces the five characters of the play—Pyramus, Thisby, Wall, Moonshine, and Lion—in dumb show before they actually appear in their speaking parts. Peter Quince, speaking the Prologue, summarizes the action of the play:
This man is Pyramus, if you would know;
This beauteous lady Thisby is certain.
This man, with lime and roughcast, doth present
Wall, that vile Wall which did these lovers sunder;
And through Wall’s chink, pour souls, they are content
To whisper. At the which let no man wonder.
This man, with lantern, dog, and bush of thorn,
Presenteth Moonshine; for, if you will know,
By moonshine did these lovers think no scorn
To meet at Ninus’ tomb, there, there to woo.
This grisly beast, which Lion hight by name,
The trusty Thisby, coming first by night,
Did scare away, or rather did affright;
And as she fled, her mantle she did fall,
Which Lion vile with bloody mouth did stain;
Anon comes Pyramus, sweet youth and tall,
And finds his trusty Thisby’s mantle slain;
Whereat, with blade, with bloody blameful blade,
He bravely broached his boiling bloody breast;
And Thisby, tarrying in mulberry shade,
His dagger drew, and died.
These events the players portray in comic fashion, each character (as well as Moonshine’s dog) contributing to the general hilarity of the experience. At the end of the play, Bottom rises from the dead, as it were, and offers to provide an epilogue or a dance to round out the entertainment. After the festivities end, Theseus and Hippolyta and the four lovers depart, leaving Oberon, Titania, and Puck to close the play with wishes for marital happiness and healthy progeny. At the end of the play, it appears that all tensions have been resolved on a festive note.
But while that festive response is our dominant impression, we want to be careful not to overlook the more serious aspect of the play, the difficulties of individuals overcoming obstacles to personal and social stability as a result of imperfect perception of the situations in which they find themselves. We can see the basic pattern illustrated in the play of Pyramus and Thisby.
In this play two lovers are prevented from finding mutual happiness by an obstacle. In the play, the obstacle is represented visually by Wall, which physically prevents Pyramus and Thisby from meeting. In an effort to avoid the obstacle, they agree to meet at night (represented by Moonshine) at a second location, “Ninny’s Tomb.” Thisby, who arrives first, is frightened by the Lion, and runs off, leaving her scarf, or “mantle,” behind. The Lion attacks the mantle vigorously, apparently injuring his mouth in the process, with the result that some of the Lion’s blood stains Thisby’s mantle. The Lion departs. Pyramus arrives next and, finding Thisby’s blood-stained scarf, assumes the worst, that Thisby has been killed. Despondent, he stabs himself, and expires in one of the most wonderfully histrionic scenes in Shakespeare. Thisby returns and sees Pyramus dead and kills herself as well. In comic fashion, these elements create a tragic scenario in which two well-intentioned lovers kill themselves through hasty misinterpretation of visual evidence. This plot, as many readers have observed, is a thinly disguised version of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, probably written just before Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Stated simply, these are the elements of the plot: two lovers (Pyramus and Thisby) are prevented from fulfilling their relationship by an obstacle (Wall); they agree to meet at a second location (“Ninny’s Tomb”), where, confused by false appearances, created in part by the altered perspective of night (Moonshine) and unfamiliar circumstance, they confusedly interact and, confounded by an element of danger (the Lion), kill themselves. This sequence, with one major modification, is the same sequence of actions which affect the other pairs of lovers of the play. The major modification is, of course, that the other lovers do not kill themselves. But they come close to doing so.
In the plot involving Lysander and Hermia, the same aspects are present: Lysander and Hermia are kept apart by Egeus’ preference for Demetrius, reinforced by the dread constraints of Athenian law (the “wall” of their experience). To avoid the obstacle of the Athenian law, Lysander and Hermia agree to meet at a second location, the woods surrounding Athens, where, confused by the moonlit night and their unfamiliarity with the territory (and of course the added effects of Puck’s potion), they nearly destroy their happiness as a result of changed affections (on Lysander’s part, not Hermia’s), and the possible harmful effects that could occur if Demetrius and Lysander were ever able to engage in a sword fight to determine the champion’s affections for his beloved. Fortunately, Oberon intervenes, and a tragic outcome is avoided.
The same pattern could be said to apply, to a lesser extent, to Demetrius and Helena. The obstacle to their happy conjunction occurs before the events of the play occur, when Demetrius, for whatever reason, decides that he no longer loves Helena, to whom he had been betrothed. The idea of betrothal is not a concept that Shakespeare treats casually, as we will see in other plays. What could have happened to change Demetrius’ mind? Perhaps he learned that Egeus preferred him for Hermia. Possibly there would be some social and economic advantages for Demetrius if he should wed Hermia, though this aspect is never discussed in the play. It is more likely, given the general tenor of the play, that he just changed his mind for no apparent reason. This kind of change of attitude occurs frequently in Shakespeare; a character simply changes his mind. The Athenian law is a kind of second obstacle for Demetrius and Helena as well, although it is not the severe obstacle that it is for Lysander and Hermia.
But Lysander and Hermia and Demetrius and Helena are not the only lovers in the play whose relationship is tested by an obstacle. The relationship between Oberon and Titania follows this same pattern as well. The obstacle to their more perfect union is the disagreement over the changeling child which Oberon desires. Oberon seems to not to respect Titania’s natural claim to determine the best course of action for the child, and Oberon stubbornly persists in his request. The two of them may not be as confused in their perceptions of the issues affecting their relationship as the four lovers, but their willful continuance of a strained relationship has, according to Titania’s account, resulted in devastating consequences in the natural world. Once Titania agrees to Oberon’s request, their amity will, we assume, restore a balance in nature.
In a similar fashion, the relationship between Theseus and Hippolyta fits this pattern as well. Although no disagreement between them occurs in the play, their initial meeting, which occurred before the events of the play, was the direct result of a political conflict: Theseus and the Athenians were at war with the Amazonians. Shakespeare may have read about this mythic encounter in Herodotus, who mentions the episode briefly. Theseus apparently met Hippolyta on the battlefield and was victorious in the encounter. All we know about that encounter is contained in the opening two lines of the play:
Hippolyta, I wooed thee with my sword,
And won thy love, doing thee injuries.
What an untold tale is summarized in these lines! Although the play is lighthearted in tone, as even these lines are, a grim episode is suggested in them. Theseus apparently wounded Hippolyta in battle, perhaps seriously, and then nursed her back to health, because he admired the woman as well as the warrior in her, and she responded to him in a similar fashion. Theseus has brought Hippolyta away from the battlefield, back to Athens, to marry her.
Every paired couple in the play, then, has encountered an obstacle to their happy union. And, in an effort to avoid the obstacle, every couple in the play has moved to an alternate location in an effort to avoid the obstacle or to improve their circumstances. Lysander and Hermia moved from Athens to the woods surrounding Athens to avoid the Athenian law, and Demetrius and Helena followed them, hoping to improve their relationships as well. Theseus and Hippolyta moved from the battlefield to Athens. Oberon and Titania have moved as well: they have moved from the Indian coast to Athens:
Titania [to Oberon]:
Why art thou here,
Come from the farthest steep of India?
But that, forsooth, the bouncing Amazon,
Your buskined mistress and your warrior love,
To Theseus must be wedded, and you come
To give their bed joy and prosperity.
To which Oberon responds:
How canst thou thus for shame, Titania,
Glance at my credit with Hipployta,
Knowing I know thy love to Theseus?
And her response to Oberon’s request for the changeling boy makes it clear that she too has come from India:
His mother was a vot’ress of my order,
And, in the spiced Indian air, by night,
Full often hath she gossiped by my side . . .
And what are we to make of Titania’s statement that Hippolyta is Oberon’s “buskined mistress” and “warrior love” or Oberon’s response that Theseus is Titania’s love? One response would be to consider that natural creatures like Oberon and Titania do not need to follow normal human moral law. However, it seems evident that Shakespeare wants us to see these four individuals as a set, like the four young lovers. But Theseus and Hippolyta and Oberon and Titania are not young lovers; they are the reigning monarchs of their separate worlds, Theseus and Hippolyta of the world of civilized society, of Athens, where the law rules, and Oberon and Titania are of the world of nature, where natural (not social) forces govern. In this paired set of rulers, we can see an entire set of contrasts that occur in the play: the human world and the natural world, social order and natural order, reason and emotion, order and disorder, day and night, sun and moon.
Shakespeare’s design is not to set these as conflicting opposites, but as complementary halves of a larger unity. This result is evident when we consider that the same actors are very likely meant to play both roles: the same actor can play Theseus and Oberon, and the same actor (or, since Shakespeare’s time, actress) can play Hippolyta and Titania. Even though there might have to be a quick change in costumes, especially in the fourth act, when Oberon and Titania leave the stage and Theseus and Hippolyta promptly appear (a challenging problem, but not insurmountable). By seeing Theseus and Hippolyta and Oberon and Titania as two halves of the same entity, the larger vision of Shakespeare’s purpose becomes evident. They are part of a matching thematic set, and they provide a structural as well as thematic balance to the play: first we see Theseus and Hippolyta, then Oberon and Ttitania, then Theseus and Hippolyta, and finally, at the conclusion of the play, Oberon and Titania.
The same kind of balance occurs in the changing affections of the four young lovers. Shakespeare presents every possible combination: first, both Lysander and Demetrius love Hermia; then Demetrius loves Hermia and Lysander loves Helena; then both Demetrius and Lysander love Helena; and finally, affections are sorted out correctly, as Lysander loves Hermia and Demetrius loves Helena. This was the situation at some point prior to the start of the play; but for some unknown reason, Demetrius shifted his affections. Unlike the men, the women remain firm in their emotional commitments. The constancy of women’s affections is one of Shakespeare’s most consistent characteristics.
One of the most often quoted passages of the play occurs early in Act V, when Theseus and Hipployta first appear. Theseus comments on the strange events involving the four lovers:
Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.
In these lines Theseus seems to be pointing to one of the main contrasts of the play, the reasoned logic of human society as opposed to the fantasies of the natural world. He extends his analysis (again, I separate the elements of the passage to emphasize its disparate elements):
The lunatic, the lover and the poet
Are of imagination all compact.
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold,
That is the madman.
The lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt.
The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
According to Theseus’ scheme, the lunatic (or madman) cannot distinguish the truth of the forms he sees but instead thinks he sees frightening images. The lover confuses or even inverts the aspects which he sees. The poet manages the images (bodying forth the forms of things unknown), arranging them in a meaningful pattern. There is a progress from lack of control, to confused control, to control. What is the purpose of Theseus’ assessment? He concludes:
Such tricks hath strong imagination,
That, if it would apprehend some joy,
It comprehends some bringer of that joy;
The images presented to the eye, Theseus states, are representative of the causes of the appearance of the images; the eye apprehends (or recognizes) a visual pattern, and the brain comprehends (translates) those images into a meaningful pattern. Theseus has summarized a theory of vision nearly as complete as that presented by Bishop Berkeley over a hundred years later. Theseus could be said to be raising one of the central issues of epistemology, introduced by Descartes forty years later. Individuals who cannot interpret phenomenal data correctly, Theseus concludes, can run the risk of great confusion:
Or in the night, imagining some fear,
How easy is a bush supposed a bear!
The play concludes as Oberon and Titania appear one final time; Oberon gives a benediction to the future lives and offspring of the happy couples:
To the best bride-bed will we,
Which by us shall blessed be;
And the issue there create
Ever shall be fortunate.
So shall all the couples three
Ever true in loving be;
Oberon expresses his best wish that none of Nature’s imperfections will affect the children of the newly married couples:
And the blots of Nature’s hand
Shall not in their issue stand,
Never mole, hairlip, nor scar,
Nor mark prodigious, such as are
Despised in nativity,
Shall upon their children be.
Oberon and Titania as well will enjoy a life of mutual happiness together now that the issue that parted them has been resolved: the changeling boy, a child of both the human and the natural world, will join Oberon’s train, and Titania, who had sworn to avoid his “bed and company” (in that order), will no longer have to do so.
At the end of the play, both individual and social harmony have been restored to the world of Athens. Although dangerous and violent elements threatened to create lasting disorder, reason and logic prevail over the unsettling forces of nature that surrounded the community. No one received serious injury as a result of any harmful actions; no one has died; this is a comedy, not a tragedy. To see the tragic effects of uncontrolled social discord we only have to consider the play that Shakespeare also wrote about this time, Romeo and Juliet.