The Course of True Love: Fate, Fairies, and Lovers
In Shakespeare’s masterpiece, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” the course of true love is a thematic thread central to its plot and characters. According to Helena, "love looks not with the eyes but with the mind" (Shakespeare, pg. 281). A close reading of this phrase leads us to interpret it as "love is created through emotional closeness, not physical closeness." This is somewhat true and false because physical attraction is indubitably an important role in the initiation and sustainment of eros or romantic love but at the same time humans seek out potential mates according to similarities in attitude and personality (Edelstein, pg. 175-176). Another interpretation of this line could be "love is blind and it can only develop through fate's conspires." In other words, true love must depend on "the fairies" to figure out. This is also true and false because Hermia and Lysander's love grew from the mutual autonomous attraction whereas the fairies had to manipulate Demetrius' love for Helena, and Theseus’ conquest of Amazons forced Hippolyta to wed him. Ultimately, falling in love depends on—yes, physical attraction—but also ecology, similarities/differences, and complimentary needs (Edelstein, pg. 175-176). The sustainment of love takes a whole different course, however, that depends on a combination of emotional bonding, sexuality, reconciliation and acceptance each other's values and beliefs, visions for the future, and a little bit of luck as readers see in the love triangle between Oberon, Titania, and Bottom. Regardless, the course of love in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” never did run so smooth, as lovers swap partners, engage in conflicts, all the while the fantasy world showcases its own unique influences and powers within human affairs.
The Charmed and the Charmer: Hermia and Lysander
The most romantic love experienced during "A Midsummer Night's Dream" is shared between Hermia and Lysander. Their decision to flee Athens into the countryside, to avoid a prosecution which would inevitably lead to a tragic death, and to live happily ever after in pastoral solitude exemplifies perfectly the romanticized shepherd/shepherdess relationship that was popular in the arts during the late 1500's. For instance, recollect Christopher Marlowe's poem "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love": the same idealistic, Carpie diem romance exists between Hermia and Lysander. In other words, during the first acts of the play, up to the very moment prior to Lysander's love-sickness for Helena is manipulated by Puck, these characters were head-over-heels for each other. Throughout the play, this couple was—besides the fictional characters in Bottom's play, Pyramus and Thisbe—the only couple that was ever mutually in love without magical interference. Thus, perhaps, the play's representation of love as portrayed between Hermia and Lysander surmounts to something like this: "Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind" (Shakespeare, pg. 281). Thus, even though the course of love did not run smooth, to paraphrase Lysander (Shakespeare, pg. 280), the fates always yield to true love, which is developed through propinquity (emotional closeness/passion) rather than proximity (corporeal closeness/'love at first sight').
The Fearful and the Devoted: Demetrius and Helena
From a psychoanalytical perspective, Helena is Demetrius' safe haven from his fear of abandonment imparted by Hermia. Demetrius' love-life during the first acts of the play was masked with an uneasy uncertainty. He knows Hermia loves Lysander, but with the authority of Athens threatening literal or social death upon Hermia, it is difficult to prophesize whether or not she will marry him. The effect of Demetrius' circumstances required him to devote his loyalty to Hermia in desperate hope of an unlikely marriage. In other words, he needed to love Hermia completely and convince her of his unquestionable love in order to win her over. Obviously, with all his eggs in one basket, he must have been experiencing a fear of abandonment and living in a lonely, barren world if Hermia rejected him. Thus, he leaves Helena on the backburner to relieve his anxiety because she, being so attached and compassionate towards him, would certainly be there for him if things did not work out between him and Hermia. It makes perfect sense; Demetrius ultimately needs Helena because she is the only character throughout the play that can offer him the romantic stability he is in search for.
The Conqueror and the Suppressed: Theseus and Hippolyta
Theseus and Hippolyta's relationship was developed by a desire for acquisition (land, trophy, authority). In other words, Theseus' intentions were to conquer Hippolyta political, rhetorically, and physically. His marriage serves only as a bolster to his own political resume: 1) conquered the Amazons, 2) conquered the Amazon queen, 3) secured his legacy/bloodline and 4) secured Athenian dominion over the Amazons by generating mixed-blood offspring. There is textual evidence to support this idea throughout the play; it is particularly expressed through Theseus' dialogue. The determinate meaning of his style of discourse leads us to interpret his personality as super-masculine. Theseus is stoic, philosophical, and emotionally detached when talking with Hippolyta (see Act V, Scene I: he even renounces "lovers" because they have "seething brains") (Shakespeare, pg. 297). The implications of such interactions with his newly-wed wife leave indeterminate gaps in the text that are left up for interpretation. From an aesthetic mode of interpretation, it seems like Theseus is hardly emotionally ready to marry. For example, he compares "lovers" with "lunatics" in Act V (Shakespeare, pg. 297). He is clearly not in the right state-of-mind if we were to classify Theseus and Hippolyta's relationship one of true love. In fact, this relationship may represent more accurately a patriarchal structure.
The Role of Fantasy in Regard to Love’s Rough Course
In a "Midsummer Night's Dream," fantasy serves as a vehicle to explain the unexplainable. This is why Shakespeare has his fairies intervene in human affairs. In particular, fantasy, whether through magic or creature, makes sense of the irrational inconsistencies involved with romantic desires, or rather, the projection of such erotic/erratic behavior. In other words, how else can Shakespeare explain how Lysander and Demetrius, whom both loved Hermia initially, all of a sudden—literally overnight—abandoned such desires in favor of Helena? This is a reality for lovers in the real world, but it is often a difficult desire to rationalize/conceptualize literally. Thus, Shakespeare introduces magic to explain the unexplainable.
With the injection of magic and fantasy into the play, Shakespeare makes "darkness visible" as a means to manifest a spectacle of desire literally, that would otherwise have been difficult to grasp. Could you imagine if Puck was never there to drip the love-potions into the eyes of Lysander and Demetrius? Could we ever make sense of such a drastic change in their temperaments? Puck is essential to the play. With him and the other fairies, Shakespeare is enabled to defamiliarize the notion of triangular desires and the irrationalities of love as explicated in the sections above. He shines a shimmering light onto the strings that control his puppets' limbs.
Puck: The Puppet Master
Puck is the puppet master and Hermia, Helena, Lysander, and Demetrius to be the puppets. Puck is seemingly omnipotent; his deceptions, which are performed with discreet, manipulation, and out-right trickery, make him the character that "holds all the cards." The young lovers are completely at the will of Puck. They are unable to escape the external constraints placed literally—the love juice—and figuratively—the love-sickness that is the cause of the potion— upon them. Only through Puck's mercy could the couples ever have had a chance at living happily ever after. In other words, the fate of the entire play—whether it was to end as a comedy or as a tragedy— was completely in Puck's hands. Furthermore, the course of love for all Shakespeare’s characters throughout the play was operated by Puck. He called all the shots and determined who fell in love with whom.
Oberon, Titania, and Bottom
Even though Puck exercised the most power than any character throughout the play he still was restricted to playing the role of the ultimate courtier to Oberon. This is important because Oberon’s relationship to Titania and their momentary fall-out indirectly commenced—by opportunity— the magical manipulation of the young couples in the forest, and the metamorphosis of Bottom into an ass. Without Oberon’s commands issued to Puck to drip a love-potion into Titania’s eyes and make her fall in love with the homely Bottom, Puck never would have had the opportunity to create mischief among the young lovers. Thus, without Oberon and Titania’s conflict and Titania falling in love with an ass, the rest of Shakespeare’s plot would have come to a screeching halt.
Even so, Oberon and Titania recommenced love, which arose from Oberon’s jealousy of Titania and Bottom’s increasingly intimate relationship, directly influenced the outcome of the young lovers’ relationships. Oberon once again indirectly impacted the young lovers by commanding Puck to fix his relationship with Titania. Puck successfully influenced Titania with his love-juice to love Oberon again, but perhaps more importantly the opportunity arose again for him to fix the relationships among the mortals, which were heading towards a most tragic conclusion: Lysander and Demetrius were ready to fight to the death and Hermia and Helena’s friendship was in tatters. Thus, with the plays fate in his hands, Puck shows mercy on the lovers, saves the day, and ultimately enables Shakespeare to call “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” a comedy.
The majority of arguments that support reading Shakespeare today in high schools and colleges center around the idea of timelessness. Shakespeare addresses issues that pertain to the human conditions for existence. He grapples with themes that are relevant to human life regardless of time and space. In other words, it does not matter whether someone is from the 15th century or 21st century, White or Black, English or Japanese, rich or poor, people will always generate a powerful reader-response to Shakespeare's literary work because he talks about aspects of life that are central to humanity such the course of true love as exemplified in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
This argument above is valid and widely accepted by many; even so, there must be reason beyond this, right? We can argue along the same premises of 'timelessness' and the 'human condition' for nearly any author because, well, they are human too and their literary work certainly does show themes relevant to mankind. So the question still remains: What makes Shakespeare stand out among the rest? From my reading encounters with Shakespeare and other great authors such as Cervantes, Milton, and Rabelais, I have noticed that while Shakespeare does indeed address issues that pertain to the human condition, he does so often using meta-cultural discourse. Master authors such as Shakespeare actively re-create/re-present human life whilst critiquing and imparting their wisdom of it within the text. In other words, what makes Shakespeare stand out in the literary world lies in his ability to inject his piercing awareness of humanity into his literature, and ambivalently critique, mock, praise, enlighten, re-create, and re-present the aspects of life we hold onto dearest. Shakespeare’s wise characterization of Puck, his young lovers, and the fairies ultimately empowered him to achieve such profound insight into human love which still resonates with readers today.
Edelstein, L. (2006). Writer's guide to character traits. (2 ed., p. 180). Cinncinati, OH: Writer'sDigest Books: F W Publications, Inc.
Shakespeare, W. (1600/1994). The complete works of william shakespeare. New York, NY: Barnes & Noble Publishing.