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“The lunatic, the lover, and the poet are of an imagination all compact” (Act 5, Scene 1, Lines 7-8). This quote by Theseus encompasses the notion of love as being an illusion, a product of the imagination. Love is equated with lunacy and poetry, both intangible qualities, which makes it necessary to question its existence. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, love is viewed in many different ways. Bottom proves to be quite accurate characterizing the four main lovers when he states, “O what fools these mortals be” (Act 3, Scene 2, Line 115). While the four main characters believe in romanticism, Theseus is a strong supporter of realism. This sets up a comparison between the dichotomy of reason and love; that love is without reason and if we use reason to rationalise love, then perhaps it does not exist or is tenuous at best.
In Act 1 Scene 1, Hermia declares her love for Lysander and swears upon “Cupid’s strongest bow, By his best arrow, with the golden head, By the simplicity of Venus’ doves, By that which knitteth souls and prospers loves, And by that fire which burned the Carthage queen When the false Troyan under sail was seen. (Act 1, Scene 1, Lines 169-174)” The oath is strong and invokes the power of mythological beings. However, it is also intangible. As much as the oath alludes to unrestrained and powerful desires (Olson, 105) it cannot withstand “Love-in-Idleness”. The introduction of the potion provides a reason for love; otherwise it is merely an intangible feeling. In other words, the existence of “Love-in-Idleness” gives a tangible representation to loving. However, this brings to mind the question: if a love that is willing to defy death cannot overcome a mere potion, then what is the strength of love that Hermia and Lysander speak of?
Moreover, the potion disrupts the natural progression of love. Olson argues “Love moves always to impress its form upon the base material of Chaos” (105). Yet, it is hard to find an example of love in the play. The young lovers Hermia and Lysander, Helena and Demetrius do not exhibit unwavering love. True love is embodied in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116, where it “looks on tempests and is never shaken” (6). Here, love is not seen to overcome the chaos that Olson speaks of; instead, it causes more chaos and imbalance: Demetrius and Lysander are magically compelled to transfer their love from Hermia to Helena. The play strives for balance, which is why the young lovers are nicely coupled in the end. The chaos caused by the potion, which is an act against nature, builds up tension in the play that has to be resolved by restoring balance. Marriage thus becomes a convenient resolution, a deus ex machina rather than a portrayal of love and the potion is a catalyst for this seemingly loving ending.
The potion is essentially a liquid, and this signifies the fluidity of the young lover’s identities. As the play progresses, it is difficult to distinguish between Hermia and Helena. Even their names sound almost identical. This supports Marshall’s assertion that the characters are “changelings in the sense that the play’s plot revolves around their exchanges. (568)” I opine that Shakespeare uses the potion to show how easily the affections of the so-called lover can be swayed. The ease by which their affections switch mocks Helena’s stoic claim that “Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind. (Act 1, Scene 1, Line 234)” Her statement assumes that love is based on the impressions formed by the lover, and if the lover’s impressions can be swayed so easily and fluidly, then the will to love is undermined.
It is worth noting that the female lovers Hermia and Helena stand unfaltering in their devotion to their lovers Lysander and Demetrius, while Lysander and Demetrius are affected by the potion and cannot stay true. The impotence of language is thus highlighted, and this undermines Hermia’s oath in the beginning of the play stated in the above paragraph. The presence of using the potion to induce love also serves as a mockery to love. “Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks (11)” – that is what love is according to the aforementioned sonnet; but in the play, love is altered within hours and that further emphasizes the falsified nature of love.
The fact that the play is entitled A Midsummer Night’s Dream reminds readers that a dream is an illusion. Under this pretext, readers enter a world of make-believe, where love can be tampered. This notion possibly offends sensibilities and the traditional logic that love is transcendental of failures. Puck acknowledges this when he ends of the play by apologising “If we shadows have offended, Think but this, and all is mended – That you have slumbered here While these visions did appear. And this weak and idle theme, No more yielding but a dream… (Act 5, Scene 1, Lines 415-420)” Furthermore, the structure of having a play within a play, that is the inclusion of “The most lamentable and most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisby” reminds us that this is only acting. This impresses upon the reader that the stage is an act of illusion, and we cannot ignore the element of uncertainty in the play. With this uncertainty, we thus mistrust the displays of love in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
There are many instances in A Midsummer Night’s Dream where love is coerced from or foisted upon unwilling persons. In Act 1 Scene 1, we are introduced to the dilemma between the love of Hermia and Lysander. Egeus insists that Hermia marry Demetrius if not she will die or be a nun. Marshall offers an explanation to Egeus’ tyranny when he says that Egeus believes that Hermia’s impression “is seen as rightfully his, which is why Hermia’s claim to think and speak for herself is also a crime against her father. (551)” Both the play’s humans and fairies try to shape love into forms that are advantageous not to the lovers, but to the leaders. Egeus insists that Hermia submit to Demetrius or die; Hippolyta must marry Theseus as a symbol of his country’s dominance over hers. And the non-human characters are just as anxious to control the romantic landscape. Again, love is being subjected to intervention and interferes with natural progression.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a play built on setting up contrasts within scenes. Similarly, the notions of love are being compared. The young lovers are consumed with what they think is love to the point of losing touch with the world and escaping to an alternate reality embodied by the forest. To them, love is a fairy tale that involves no reason. Theseus ridicules this idea when he states that “Lovers and madmen have such seething brains, Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend More than cool reason every comprehends. (Act 5, Scene 1, Lines 4-6)” By this, he is dismissing the young lovers’ love as a fantasy that is without rationale. This is true of the lovers especially when they disregard their family and are willing to even die for their love.
Helena represents this foolish loving when she avows, “I am your spaniel, and Demetrius, The more you beat me, I will fawn on you. Use me but as your spaniel – spurn me, strike me, Neglect me, lose me; only give me leave, Unworthy as I am, to follow you. What worser place can I beg in your love – And yet a place of high respect with me – Than to be used as you use your dog? (Act 2, Scene 1, Lines 202-210)” This avowal, though passionate, lacks dignity and sensibility. It is senseless that she is begging for Demetrius’ love only to be loved by him in the end because of the potion. The unity of the lovers is laughable when we rationalise that the pains they have taken to be together is eclipsed by “Love-in-Idleness.” It could be Shakespeare’s way of mocking their love because the pansy in effect, creates love without having to do anything (idleness).
Despite my intentions to prove that love does not exist between the young lovers, we have to bear in mind that it is staunch to Lysander’s view that “The course of true love never did run smooth (Act I, Scene 1, Line 134). Love exists if we understand love as a path fraught with difficulties to be overcome. However, this conclusion would be simplistic because it does not take into account the fickleness of the young lovers. By this yardstick, it is then difficult to determine whether love exists or not. And because of this difficulty, I can only conclude that true love is elusive and rare and is perhaps an illusion that can only be found in a dream. After all, didn’t Shakespeare conclude in Sonnet 116 that “If this be error and upon me proved, I never writ, nor no man ever loved”?
Marshall, David. “Exchanging Visions: Reading A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” ELH, Vol. 49, No. 3. (Autumn, 1982), pp. 543-575 <http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0013-8304%28198223%2949%3A3%3C543%AEVRAMN%3E2.0.CO&3B2-6>
Olson, Paul A. “A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the Meaning of Court Marriage.” ELH, Vol. 24, No. 2 (Jun., 1957), pp. 95-119 <http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0013-8304%28195706%2924%3A2%3C95%3AAMNDAT%3E2.0.CO%3B2-Z>
Shakespeare, William. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. New York: Penguin Group, 2000. – . Sonnet 116. The Norton Shakespeare. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc, 1997. 1962.
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