A recent reread of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night's Dream has prompted me to ponder. I am not going to attempt to encompass the entire play in this post. For my musings today, I will concentrate on just one part of the work that concerns itself with passionate and intense early love instead.
For those unfamiliar with the work: the part of the play that I am referring to here centers upon two couples. Hermia and Lysander are in love. However, Hermia is ordered by Duke Theseus to marry another man named Demetrius. Complicating matters is the fact that another character, Helena, is in love with Demetrius, who is uninterested in her.
When the four find themselves in a forest at night, they encounter a group of fairies and elves. Oberon is the King of the Fairies, and Titania is his estranged queen. Puck is a mischievous elf who is a servant of Oberon. The king decides to send Puck to play a nasty trick on Titania by administering a love flower to the queen and pointing her in the direction of a buffoon named Bottom. The clownish Bottom is also in the forest that night rehearsing for a play. Adding insult to injury, Bottom is transformed into a man with the head of a jackass.
While all of this is going on, Oberon comes across the love-struck Helena for whom he feels sorry. Thus, he sends Puck to apply the love potion to Demetrius in order to enthrall him to Helena.
Chaos ensues, as Puck is prone to make mistakes as to who he should be administering the herb to. Throughout the play, characters become obsessively smitten and un-smitten with one another as a result of Puck’s actions.
I think that it is important to define exactly what kind of love, if it is love at all, that Shakespeare is dealing with here. There are many kinds of love as well as variations within each kind. What Shakespeare seems to be exploring here is the kind of passionate love that comes on fast and burns intensely. Even this fairly insubstantial form of the emotion is complex and is characterized by nuance and exceptions. It often, but not always, strikes the young. It often burns out fast, but sometimes leads to a more substantial, long term and lifetime version of love. One gradient of the emotion may not really be love at all and would be better characterized as intense infatuation mixed with lust.
Shakespeare’s depiction of this type of love seems almost like a mechanical process. The emotion is depicted as if it can actually be turned on and off at the flick of a switch. In the play, Puck flips this switch on and off. When he applies it to the wrong person, it seems to further illustrate the random nature of this intense infatuation. I think that this comedic and dramatic convention can be seen as a reflection of how this emotion really affects people.
The Character of Puck is meaningful and seems to represent all sorts of things. One aspect to him and his tendency to trigger this amorous reaction in various people seems to be a representation of the human tendency to fall into such fickle passions. As the “controller” of the “passion switch,” he seems to reflect an innate nature that manifests itself during the lifetime of many people. This emotion is not something that Shakespeare seems to be portraying as virtuous or desirable. When Puck utters the famous lines,
And the youth, mistook by me,
Pleading for a lover's fee.
Shall we their fond pageant see?
Lord, what fools these mortals be!
He seems to be commenting upon something that he himself symbolizes.
Later, he rhymes, in a very mischievous way, about the changeability that he finds so easy to invoke.
Up and down, up and down,
I will lead them up and down.
I am fear'd in field and town.
Goblin, lead them up and down.
This changeability seems to reflect the real life experiences of people.
Shakespeare was not the first to observe through poetry and fiction the seemingly arbitrary nature of intense infatuation. Mythology is full of such musings. There are plenty of examples of stories of gods, goddesses and various magical characters casting love spells that cause their recipients to act in all sorts of irrational ways. One thing that makes this a great play is that in his use of language, Shakespeare explores this issue in a way that is unparalleled. The above passages are only two examples among many.
At the play’s conclusion, all seems well. The two young couples are matched and satisfied to be in love and most are wedded to the person that they originally desired. All are back to their original state except Lysander. He is left with Puck’s spell and is now in love and married to Helena, a girl whose affections he originally spurned.
Shakespeare does not hint whether the couples will end up happy in the long run or not. The only long-term relationship depicted in the play is that of Oberon and Titania, who seem to be locked in a strange relationship characterized by acrimony and power struggles that alternate with periods of true affection.
However the couples end up in the long run, this play is about a lot more then just a fun lark in the forest on a summer night. Indeed, this is perhaps the most enjoyable and fun of Shakespeare’s works. It also has a lot to say about the human condition, and it goes about saying it in a truly sublime way.