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The Concepts of Myth, Magic and Madness in a Midsummer Night's Dream

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In a fine example of Shakespearean irony, scholars have suggested that A Midsummer Night’s Dream was originally written as entertainment for an aristocratic wedding. The Lord Chamberlain’s Players provided the noble bride and groom, the ultimate symbol of harmony and true love, with a delightful comedy about gender conflict, transformed emotions, myth, and magic. Shakespeare avoids the social conventions of the civilized world by introducing a ‘green world’ ( Introduction, MND, 808) where the fairies rule. It is within this metaphysical world, and its associated suspended disbelief, that he calls on the fancy of myth and magic as a means of exploring the idiosyncrasies behind human behavior. More importantly, it is only through accepting the possibility of Puck’s love juice or the power of Cupid’s arrow that we can understand and forgive the intolerable behavior between Demetrius, Lysander and their scorned lovers.

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As each man changes his affections from one woman to the other, he flings brutal verbal insults toward his past love. These irrational and undeserved rebukes build a relationship of ‘engagement and detachment’ with the audience, which is critical to the mechanics of the comedy. Audience engagement is invited with the sharing of Lysander and Hermia’s elopement secrets in Act 1.1; however the gratuitously cruel statements that follow in 2.1, 2.2, and 3.2 force the audience to detach or distance themselves from the painful insults, and in doing so, laughter is generated (” Introduction” to MND, 810 ). The words themselves, despite their disturbing nature, are not of primary importance. It is the tone established between the characters and the resulting sense of injustice that shocks the audience into this powerfully manipulative relationship.

The biting remarks made by Lysander and Demetrius highlight several areas of conflict that drive the comedy. To begin with, it is essential that the audience accept that such wicked words are the direct result of the power of the metaphysical world. The hierarchy of creation is upside-down in this ‘green world’, and the caustic words and irrational actions of the mortals are a direct result of fairy mischief. Social conflict is evident by a loss of decorum which occurs when Lysander and Demetrius, gentlemen in the city of Athens, become unjustifiably ruthless in their treatment of their past lovers. The social courtesy expected between a gentleman and a young maiden is called into conflict by Lysander’s rude and gratuitous name calling when he refers to the innocent Hermia as an Ethiope, a cat, a burr, and a dwarf (3.2). To be deemed positive, male dominance must be in balance with his role as a protector. When Demetrius threatens to “do [her] mischief in the wood” (2.1.237) when the love-sick Helena follows him into the forest, the relationship appears irrevocability damaged. This remark, shared with other thinly veiled threats, forces the audience to explore the gender conflict.

Not only limited to the stage, secondary conflict is created between the players and the audience. When the powerful arrow of Cupid causes Demetrius to fall in love with Hermia and abandon Helena, the tone established by his stinging words ensures audience sympathy is generated. Likewise, the transformation of Lysander when under the influence of Puck’s love juice is dramatic and powerful. His dreadful and prolonged rebuke of Hermia in Act 3.2 equates him with Demetrius in the audience’s mind. Creating a character type, it becomes difficult to tell the two men apart, and the audience is in conflict when searching to define their identities. The blurring of the characters not only emphasizes action over the character, but is an effective tool in reducing blame. This confusion forces the audience to refrain from choosing one character over another, and to look to the bigger picture: unresolved conflict, the trials of romantic love, and the power of the metaphysical world.

This complex and delightful comedy takes a fanciful look at the power of the metaphysical world. Oberon, Puck, and Cupid are ultimately responsible for the dramatic changes in Lysander and Demetrius. The golden tip of Cupid’s arrow and Puck’s powerful love juice need only a moment to send the mortal world into chaos. The intense passions triggered by the fairies’ misadventures can hardly be blamed on the men themselves, and therefore the portrayals of Demetrius and Lysander do not show psychological verisimilitude. As quickly as Puck’s potions can turn the world upside down, his antidote can right it. Confirmation of this is found in Act 4 when Lysander, explaining himself to Theseus, admits confusion, saying “Half sleep, half waking. But as yet, I swear, I cannot truly say how I came here,” ( 4.1.144-145). Likewise, Demetrius explains his change of heart as being “like in sickness” (4.1.170), but now restored “in health” (4.1.171).

The mechanics of a comedy require disorder and happy resolution. The tone set by the men’s cruel and gratuitous remarks created much of the conflict that drove the plot and incited laughter. By the play’s end, the audience is able to forgive the harsh words as harmony is restored and the metaphysical mischief-makers assume responsibility for the unnatural chaos they have created. Although at times uncomfortable and unjust, perhaps the power of this comedy is built by the extreme discord. As Puck reminds us in the Epilogue, harmony is essential to the fulfillment of a comedy.

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Greenblatt,Stephen, et al.,eds. The Norton Shakespeare. New York: Norton,1997.

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