The presentation of love in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream
To write about love in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream means to write about the main topic of the play. Love is both essential for the plot structure and a genre convention of the romantic comedy. As Peter G. Philias pointed out, “in the comedies [Shakespeare] chose to place side by side the romantic and realistic concepts of love and in so doing to point to a middle ground, a golden mean.”1. This is especially true for the play before us, because here Shakespeare exaggerates this technique: The inconstancy in love is taken to extremes by the device of the magic juice. The play also focuses on other aspects of love, especially its destructive power, the obstacles it has to get over and the conflict between passionate and platonic love.
I want to start by elaborating on the last point. When Theseus wants to talk Hermia into marrying Demtrius, he uses the image of a rose to show her how a woman should cope with her passionate feelings:
THESEUS: But earthlier happy is the rose distilled
Than that which, withering on the virgin thorn,
Grows, lives, and dies in single blessedness.2
He promotes both passionate and platonic love. On the one hand he tells her that without sexuality in her life, living as a nun, she will “wither”, like a flower which is deprived of an essential of life. On the other hand he compares marriage to a “rose distilled”, to perfume. This means that a woman is allowed to feel sexual desire and should not suppress it, but only if she has those feelings for her husband and therefore is in control of herself.
Helena does not make a clear point about this topic either. In her monologue about her friendship with Hermia she praises their platonic friendship in glowing terms:
HELENA: So we grew together,
Like to a double cherry—seeming parted
But yet an union in partition—
Two lovely berries molded on one stem;
Like Theseus she uses images of nature. She defines platonic friendship as a greater unity that only two people can form. The two girls are still individuals, but because they spent so much time together they share a lot of views and likes and dislikes. They may have different opinions sometimes, but they cannot be separated. Although Helena glorifies their friendship, there is one flaw, namely that Helena betrayed Hermia:
HELENA: I evermore did love you, Hermia,
Did ever keep your counsels, never wronged you—
Save that, in love unto Demetrius,
I told him of your stealth unto this wood.
She stresses that she “never” betrayed Hermia but just after that admits that she cannot use the word “never” anymore because she put her love to Demetrius, the passionate love, before her platonic love to Hermia. She knew that it would not bring her closer to Demetrius to tell him that, but still she did not hesitate to forfeit her best friend’s trust in her. Although she knows the worth of the platonic love between friends, she chose passionate love over it.
Betrayal does not just happen between the women in the play. The men are portrayed as very inconsistent people. We know that Demetrius had switched from Helena to Hermia before the play starts and under the influence of the magic juice both Lysander and Demetrius change their object of glorification from Hermia to Helena easily. Throughout the play the unfaithfulness of men is hinted at, for example when Hermia swears
HERMIA: By all the vows that ever men have broke
(In number more than ever women spoke)
in the very first scene although she has no reason yet to be uncertain of Lysander’s love for her. This foreshadows Lysander’s betrayal later on.
When Demetrius is finally under the influence of the magic juice, he describes his mind change as follows:
DEMETRIUS: But, my good lord, I wot not by what power—
But by some power it is—my love to Hermia,
Melted as the snow, seems to me now
As the remembrance of an idle gaud
Which in my childhood I did dote upon.
This passage contributes to the impression of men’s instability in this play. Demetrius compares his love for Hermia to melting snow, suggesting that he is thinking that passion overrode his actual, pure and true feelings for Helena. Interestingly he compares his behavior to that of a child, and like a child he does not take the responsibility for his actions, rather blaming some sort of ‘power’ – although he does not know about the magic juice and should therefore blame himself.
Interestingly, the magic juice has to be squeezed into the eyes; as though one’s physical appearance is essential for falling in love with someone. This would explain the inconstancy of the two young men, because looks are superficial features and therefore not reliable. The two women seem to realize that their outer appearance is important:
HELENA: O, teach me how you look and with what art
You sway the motion of Demetrius' heart.
HELENA: Through Athens I am thought as fair as she.
But what of that? Demetrius thinks not so.
Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind.
And therefore is winged Cupid painted blind.
1 Peter G. Phialas, Shakespeare’s Romantic Comedies: The Development of Their Form and Meaning (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1966), p. 130.
2 William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, ed. by R.A. Foakes (Cambridge: University Press, 2003).