There are three sets of characters in A Midsummer Night’s Dream: the Athenians contending over love, the Athenian tradesmen putting on a production of Pyramus and Thisbe for Theseus’ wedding, the fairies. Puck ends the play asking for leniency “if we shadows have offended” (V.i.430). I wonder if he is speaking about the difficulty of how these disparate groups make the play a coherent whole. He says to regard the play as a dream; an offended audience will have “slumber’d here / while these visions did appear.” A “weak and idle theme” yields little “but a dream” (V.i.432-434).
I won’t pretend to understand all of the play. I know what I’m interested in and can begin to grasp. Nearly all the men in the play want what they want right here, right now. Theseus begins the play by whining that his marriage is a few days away and that’s too long a wait. Egeus demands his daughter obey him and marry someone she thinks little better than a murderer. Demetrius, with Egeus on his side, tries to use the law to force Hermia to marry him. Lysander, the best of the lot, has a plan to elope with Hermia and is certainly not shy about making sexual advances. Bottom, the tradesman who plays Pyramus, is an ass because he exemplifies all these tendencies. He can act the lover and the tyrant far too easily, by his own admission.
Oberon is a strange case. He fits into this mold but complicates it quite a bit. Wanting his wife Titania to give up an Indian boy serving as her attendant so he can make him a knight, he puts a spell on her that causes her to dote on Bottom. That spell seems hideously manipulative. With her unable to control her love, he gets her to drop any claim on the boy and takes him into his possession. He does not seem to explain or apologize for his behavior to Titania. While we can say that Titania’s doting spoils the boy and can potentially make him an ass just like Bottom and many of the other men in the play, Titania herself cites significant reasons for her behavior. The boy, we learn in the beginning of Act II, was the infant son of a faithful follower who died in childbirth. Titania feels responsible for his safety.
The general issue the men raise is that of will. It is neither rational – these men are far from that, believe me – nor reducible to the sort of love that dotes. Venus in Virgil’s Aeneid shows how appetite and carnal love are not really separate from more matronly feelings. Venus will do anything for Aeneas, her son, including kill any number of others while mindlessly focusing on his destiny. I suspect Shakespeare is working with a similar implication regarding Titania. Oberon appears just in his judgment of Demetrius and is genuinely sorry Lysander is a victim of Puck. Still, the problem surrounding his character and moral status should not be ignored. And again, the case for Titania’s stance on the boy is strong.
That fight between Oberon and Titania, to be sure, is the central action of the play. The Athenian lovers are brought together because Oberon is willing to use a love potion to manipulate and humiliate his wife. The justice of the action is terribly unclear, but perhaps I am looking for the wrong thing if I’m focusing on justice. It is helpful that at least one part of the play stands completely outside the central action: the play within a play of Act V. Bottom’s performance as Pyramus would be ludicrous and idiotic whether or not he was loved by Titania or not.
What makes the play within a play a disaster is its overly literal nature. A wall separates Pyramus and Thisbe in the story. Rather than bring in a wall or have the audience imagine one, the actors decide that one of them should act the part of Wall. Another gets the part of Moonshine, since the moon shone upon the tragic night of the lovers’ death. Bottom, playing Pyramus, always makes sure to declare the obvious, announcing he is dying a number of times after stabbing himself on stage. More curious is how Theseus, before the play within a play, talks about how lunatics, lovers and poets are all defined by overuse of the imagination. Lunatics fear too much; lovers hope too much; poets “make” things from nothing, giving to “airy nothing / a local habitation and a name” (V.i.15-16). People who are willful are not always receptive to the idea that their imagination excites them and guides them too much. They like to think they have a direct relation to reality. Theseus himself, inasmuch he is willful, is perhaps subject to this critique. The outstanding question is how will and imagination relate to love; this is somehow related to the fairies and their fight.
Will, imagination and love are all linked by Helena in Act I: “Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind” (I.i.245). She says this to justify her love of Demetrius and what she will do because of it. Not that the mind knows; Helena seems to think herself reasonable, but her speech is more revealing. The mind is rather what love uses to look. There’s a huge difference between knowing and looking with the mind, a difference that I think is between reason and imagination. Helena is why I got into this play. Insecure about her looks, she begins the play by praising Hermia, saying that she wished she had Hermia’s frowns as they’re better than her own smiles. The second Hermia steps off stage, Helena straightaway asks what Hermia has that she doesn’t have, implies that men only like Hermia because they do not know what true beauty is, and asserts that she’s the only who knows what love is. Of course, when two men do fall in love with Helena, she can’t take it seriously. It’s her insecurity on one level that’s the problem, on another this simple truth: love can’t simply be reason alone, because you can be loved and not recognize it at all.
Helena’s character helps illustrate how the play works. When I first read the exchange between her and Demetrius, I thought about how both deserved each other. They do. Demetrius keeps talking about how he wants to kill Lysander and Helena creepily talks about how much she loves him and will love him no matter what. Helena is almost as bad, if not worse, than Demetrius. She knew he would cause trouble if brought around Lysander and Hermia, yet she brought him to them just to see him again. But Helena is not just reflected in Demetrius. Lysander to some degree is in love with love, just like Helena. It makes perfect sense that he might appreciate her more romantic inclinations. The love potion put on his eyes isn’t actually hypnotic. Rather, it reveals truths which underlie love and likenesses which might cause love.
Titania might be the best example of this. If we take Puck’s “it’s all a dream” speech seriously, we can wonder about the visions each of the characters had regarding each other. At the end of Act IV, the lovers are talking like each one has had separate visions; Hippolyta is openly musing about how they all had the same dream. What’s happening, I think, is that the “visions” are revelations. They are imaginative acts which, in this case, yield rational truths. Instead of seeing Oberon as abusing Titania, we can see the nature of the love potion the following way. Titania sees the full consequences of not allowing the boy to become a knight and protect his and her home. He will be spoiled and think himself entitled. Thus, as someone concerned about the wholeness of nature – she points out to Oberon at the opening of Act II that their argument is causing floods, making the land sterile, mixing the seasons – she is persuaded to do differently. That rational persuasion is presented to us, the audience, as a fantastic, dreamlike sequence.
The imagination is about seeing the full consequences of one’s actions, speeches and thoughts play out. This is the deep reason why it is so essential to love, a life together; why it is not simply reason alone. But the imagination alone does not cause love. The difference between the boy being a knight and being spoiled is that of willfulness. A boy that cannot properly will cannot love.
Puck gives two speeches before the play ends. The one before his final speech in Act V is worth a look. There, he talks about nature made whole and useable by man: the ploughman is fast asleep from work, as opposed to frustrated before (contrast with II.i.450-486). He talks about spirits rising from the graves and wandering at night, spirits he confused his own nature with before. Puck knows himself at the end of the play; this was something that he wasn’t quite clear on when we first encountered him (opening of Act II; note the difference between what the fairy says Puck does and what Puck says he does). The fairies make sure not one ounce of dust leaves a house. They are pagan hospitality, the protectors of the home. What is strange is how home is more imagined than real, less willed and more seen. Perhaps Shakespeare’s most beautiful imagery involves the quiet invocation of spirits, of ghosts (see III.ii as well as end of V). Ghosts from the churchyard, ghosts from the unburied, and nature spirits like Puck are how we know home is real, how humanity has a place on earth. Somewhere, we love.