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.
My favourite Shakespeare. We even named one of our cats, Puck, after one of the characters.
Well, when I say favourite that is favourite to see as a theatre production. I was put off reading Shakespeare for life when I had to read it for my O'level English Lit course as a teenager. Now if I had had to read this perhaps it would have been a whole different matter.
Hi Tracy - I think that seeing the Shakespeare's plays are just as valid as reading them. In fact probably more so.
I often argue that the best understanding comes from doing both.
It is awesome that you named your cat Puck!
Very nice review, Brian. I saw a brilliant performance of this play years ago in Montgomery, Alabama -of all places-which at the time had the largest Shakespeare festival in the country.
The acting was so well done. We laughed so hard our faces hurt afterward.
I never analyzed what Shakespeare was saying about love, although I've no doubt your observation hits the mark.
I personally believe that it is not love that attracts us to another person. Love is the fruit that is produced through hard line committing to each other for a life time. Too many people seek love but aren't willing to pay the cost, thus finding it elusive.
One of my favourite Shakespeare plays. I love the comedies. I've seen this performed a number of times.
Hi Sharon - I agree, in most cases real love does not come first. Though it may happen if people are otherwise together because they are friends or associates first.
I also agree that love does take work and commitment that many do not want to expend.
Hi Guy - This one seems to be so many people's favorite.
A great review, Brian.
I especially like your focus on the fickle nature of love and the way that Puck magically turns it on and off. For isn't it magic of a sort? It is also reality, at least among young lovers who change partners seemingly at will. But, as you point out, Shakespeare's own magic is his language and that, along with a plot that has its foundation in mythology, makes for a classic comedy.
Hi James - Thanks!
It really feels like magic when one is feeling that type of attraction.
Great commentary as always, Brian!
This is one of Shakespeare's plays that I do remember reading in high school, but not in depth, as I read it on my own.It's one of Shakespeare's most enchanting plays! In fact, I based my blog's name on its magical-sounding title. I really need to revisit it and become better acquainted with it, as it's obviously one of The Bard's more famous plays. In high school, I was more into drama than comedy, so plays like "Hamlet", "Macbeth", and "Romeo and Juliet" impressed me more. Now that I'm older, I've started to lean more toward comedy, as real life has cured me of my predilection for drama, although I do still enjoy some. Lol.
I really like the plot of this play; it's whimsical, but only on the surface, as Shakespeare is definitely saying something serious here about the human condition, as you have pointed out. And what better example of love's fickleness in real life than the "romantic roulette" that routinely goes on in Hollywood? Lol. And they don't even have love potions! (Not that I know of, anyway.....) I wonder what ol' Will would have thought of that, considering he was an actor himself.
I'm off to my bookshelves to locate this play right away! Thanks for the terrific post! : )
Hi Maria - I was thinking about your blog and its name when I posted this.
I was not actually thinking of Hollywood when I wrote this but it is indeed a really good example of what I think Shakespeare was talking about.
I hear you about real life and drama. We all need some goof comedy much more then once in a while!
Great post, Brian. This is one of my favourite Shakespeare plays and your review is a wonderful reminder of it. How fickle and transient love can be..
Thanks Jacqui - Or at least the fickleness refers to this one particular type of love.
I love this play too--so fun, so accessible. I like your notion about Puck flipping on/off love like a light switch, and I always forget Lysander is still under an enchantment when the play ends.
I do like Titania and Oberon--they have their issues, but their love survives their discord.
Hi Jane - This play is so beloved by so many.
The more I think about it the more important I think that the relationship is between Titania and Oberon.
Wonderful commentary, Brian Joseph. Your last paragraph is outstanding. I've read this and have also seen it performed a few times.
Hi Suko - Thanks so much.
I also saw a performance right after I wrote the above. I think that the best way to experience Shakespeare's works is to BOTH read them and see them performed.
You just can't beat Shakespeare, eh? Well, I'm supposed to read 15 sonnets this week for bookclub. I'm a little sad that it is only a cursory reading of these great poems. I love how you dig into this play--it used to be my favorite. And I love Dead Poet's Society which quotes this play. The last time I watched the play, I had a different reaction. Possibly because I'm now trying to encourage my adult kids not to do stupid things. Think with your head. HaHa!I'm not sure what my favorite Shakespeare is now. They are all five stars.
Hi Heidi- Ivan working and blogging my way through the Sonnets myself, but very slowly.
This does seem to be many people's favorite plays. My favorite probably Heny V or King Lear.
As for characters doing not so smart things in Shakespeare plays, I would say that there are many examples ;)
This is a fun read. I remember watching a play in the theatre years ago, and the protagonists all wore pajamas. It was very enjoyable.
Hi Delia - I recently saw a production of this too.
It really is one of the most fun plays to watch.
The pajama thing is neat.
So many people seem to have enjoyed watching this play, which I guess is the real test. I particularly remember a performance in a tent (Footsbarn Theatre) which was pitched in a park in the very centre of Dublin and the path to the tent was strung with fairy lights. It was a magical performance which was not affected by Puck having a broken leg!
Hi Seamus - There really is something special about watching this play live.
The fairy lights sound like they added such charm!
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