Mirror, Mirror, in the Wood: A Review of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”
In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare interweaves several convoluted plots in which the human world and the ‘Green Wood,’ or fairy world, meet. Critics often interpret the human world, under the leadership of Theseus and his wife-to-be Hippolyta as the world of order, and the kingdom of the fey couple Oberon and Titania as that of disorder. The interweaving plotlines of the young lovers, the king and his wife, the rude mechanicals and the fairies not only overlap in the story, but also thematically mirror each other, providing foils for many of these characters.
Critics often give attention to the purpose of the fairies in the play. Though it could appear that the fairy world wreaks havoc on the humans as soon as they enter, the havoc may actually have roots in the supposed world of order. Ultimately, the fairy world reflects and brings out the disorder already present in the human world, displaying the flaws of humanity.
Early on, Theseus establishes himself as the lord of order, commanding Hermia to “fit your fancies to your fathers will / Or else the law of Athens yields you up.” His realm is far disparate from that of the “spirits of another sort” (3.2.388), as Oberon terms his kind. Oberon and Titania rule a kingdom of the night, a dark hint at the chaos and illusion that occurs in their kingdom. The nighttime brings on dreams, irrational illusions. However, even dreams can reveal truth, and the fateful dream that takes place in the wood reveals abundant truth about the habits of humans, especially those who are in mad pursuit of their beloved.
What is the major precipitant of any disorder in the play? One primary character, one without any lines or even appearances, who nevertheless causes a great amount of chaos is the changeling boy. In a sense, the changeling reflects a distorted mirror image in the ugly fairy child who was left in his place. Originally a subject of the supposedly ordered world, the little Indian boy is a creature from beyond the looking-glass, a symbol of a grand reversal of family order—the theft of a babe. The child brings nothing but disorder to the fairy world, resulting in the estrangement of Oberon and Titania and the disturbance of nature. That nature is controlled by the royal couple of the Green Wood implies that it was ordered until the human came on the scene—a strange mirror plot of the humans who seem ordered until they reach the fairy wood.
Or do they? The initial conflict brews between Hermia and her father, setting the stage for further contention. Hermia’s defiance and Egeus’ dominance throw a wrench into the natural order of things. Egeus’ unreasonable preference of Demetrius over Lysander shows some sense of arbitrary disorder already lurking in the human world. Lysander points out: “I am, my lord, as well derived as he, / As well possessed; my love is more than his.” (1.1.99-100) Egeus asserts his paternal authority, which Theseus defends in the name of law and order. But the family bond of father and daughter melts away as Lysander and Hermia plan to run away. The disorder continues when Helena enters the scene, complaining that Hermia attracts all men, and culminating in her betrayal of her supposedly beloved friend.
The strange happenings in the Green Wood may be attributed in part to the pansy-juice which Puck misapplies, but the conflict between Hermia and Helena begins when Helena made the choice to put her obsession with Demetrius over her friendship with Hermia. She admits early on:
Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind,
And therefore is winged Cupid painted blind.
Nor hath Love’s mind of any judgment taste;
Wings, and no eyes, figure unheedy haste:
And therefore is love said to be a child,
Because in choice he is so oft beguiled. (1.1.234-239)
She promptly betrays her childhood friend and reveals Hermia and Lysander’s plan of elopement to Demetrius and subsequently follows him into the forest, hoping to gain his approval. Shakespeare develops Helena into one of his most fascinating characters, as her complete infatuation with Demetrius drives her to toss friendship, reputation, and self-esteem to the winds in a desperate and seemingly hopeless quest (Her desperation is rewarded—Shakespeare does not answer the question of whether it is proper, as she was Demetrius’ original love, or merely a contrivance of Oberon’s pansy-juice). Her love for him sinks further and further into irrationality, most notably when she begs:
I am your spaniel; and, Demetrius,
The more you beat me, I will fawn on you.
Use me but as your spaniel, spurn me, strike me,
Neglect me, lose me; only give me leave,
Unworthy as I am, to follow you.
What worse place can I beg in your love–
And yet a place of high respect with me–
Than to be used as you use your dog? (2.1.202-210)
Demetrius’ cruel treatment of her, however, causes the reader to raise a figurative eyebrow regarding his legitimacy as a potential husband for anyone. While Helena’s prudence (or lack thereof) certainly merits some doubt, Demetrius’ lines reveal a heart of stone: “I’ll run from thee and hide me in the brakes, / And leave me to the mercy of wild beasts” (2.1.227-8). Michael Brown, in his essay The Darker purpose of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, puts it succinctly: “Demetrius, undrugged, is as irrational as Demetrius drugged.”[i] These vices are apparent as soon as the twain enter the wood, but the machinations of the fairies therein will only serve to heighten such vices even more.
While seeking revenge against Titania by anointing her eyes with the potent pansy-juice so she will fall in love with whatever brute she comes upon, Oberon wishes to aid the distressed Helena by anointing Demetrius’ eyes as well. The mischievous Fairy Puck blunders and anoints Lysander’s instead, who upon waking sees Helena before anyone else. This situation and the ensuing attempts to remedy it cause further chaos among the humans, mingling the disorder of the fairy kingdom with the already messed-up relationship situation of the Athenians. As Kenneth Burke points out in his article Why A Midsummer Night’s Dream: “And so, what with mistakes, and Puckishness, and the dramaturgic convenience of such a magic juice, conditions are set for as many tanglings and untanglings of the plot as the playwright considers advisable.”
While the men labor under the rosy-tinted delusion of the love potion, the women, unaffected by any such drug, turn into veritable termagants. These two, who were supposedly such good friends, quickly revoke their former intimacy in a bitter romantic rivalry. The Green Wood serves as the setting for their fight, a stage for them to exhibit the vices which have been lingering there. In Act Three, the climax of the drama, both Demetrius and Lysander are enamored of Helena. Their dispute becomes almost comical, yet disturbing in its brutality. Hermia exclaims:
“O me! You juggler! You canker blossom! / You thief of love! What, have you come by night / And stol’n my love’s heart from him” (3.2.282-284)?
Helena, as though her insecurities could take one more blow, retorts:
Have you no modesty, no maiden shame,
No touch of bashfulness? What, will you tear
Impatient answers from my gentle tongue?
Fie, fie! You counterfeit, you puppet, you! (3.2.285-288)
The men then proceed to threaten violence, in the name of protecting Helena, and further exacerbate the disruption of what somehow turns into a concordant group of four lovers.
David P. Young, in Something of Great Constancy, addresses the dichotomy of the two worlds: “The action of the play moves between the two, as two groups of characters from the real and reasonable world find themselves temporarily lost in the imaginary and irrational world.” He also refers to the woodland goings-on as “a suspension of reality.” I pose, however, that the nominally real and reasonable world is proved irrational by the fairy world, which amplifies reality.
Indeed, what brings the four lovers to the wood? Hermia and Lysander flee the rationality which Theseus holds dear—that standard under which the daughter should bow down to her father’s inexorable will. Demetrius follows them, intent upon his selfish desire for Hermia, followed by the groveling Helena. In his deluded state, Lysander claims: “The will of man is by his reason swayed / And reason says you are the worthier maid” (2.2.115-116). To be sure, he regains his senses and returns to his former love, but Demetrius remains ‘under the influence.’ As was apparent in Lysander’s case, the love that results from Oberon’s flower is by no means reasonable. Does Demetrius have any stronger claim to a rational love for Helena? This question remains unanswered, but the events of the wood lead us to wonder how solid this ‘happy ending’ really is.
Several analyses of the play point to the comedic ending as inevitable, as does Burke:
“We just know that the “Dream’s” entanglements are going to get untangled. Such expectations are built into the form. In fact, the various shifts of allegiance, without any corresponding depths of transformation in the comic characters themselves, are all that is needed to tell us in a general way that this play is under the sign of relaxation. He considers the mood of the entire play to be one of ‘relaxation’ of the expected norms and hierarchy. This conforms to the idea that the human world as shown in A Midsummer Night’s Dream lacks the order which Theseus would like it to, an idea which further reflection on the fairy world supports.”
In addition to providing the setting for a tableau of vicious bickering, the fairies also mirror the humans’ weaknesses by evincing anthropomorphic qualities, for good or ill. Titania and Oberon, in their marital spat, throw accusations of infidelity at one another. When Oberon demands “Am I not thy lord” (2.1.63), Titania casts up against him his amorous pursuits, especially his “buskined mistress and your warrior love” (2.1.71), Hippolyta. Her husband indignantly reminds her of his full knowledge of her affair with Theseus. The fact that they have allowed their dispute to disrupt nature and yet do not care assuredly reveals disorder, but in the very human reality of a rocky relationship–not only that, but a rocky relationship caused by consorting with the rulers of the human world. It follows then that the two worlds should share elements of order and disorder. This notable situation implicates Theseus—he employs a mask when he claims to uphold reason and law.
Michael Taylor argues that “Shakespeare’s darker purpose in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in fact, is to remind us that the delights of the fairy world are only a fragile concealment for the foolishness and errors of the human.” Perhaps not a fragile concealment, but a purposeful foil to show the extent to which humans err. Taylor’s makes a critical point: “Demetrius’s vicious reply sets the tone of the humans’ ‘debate,’ and it is important that he should be presented in this manner before the lovers’ crassness can be blamed on the metamorphic effects of a drug.”
Allan Lewis, in a discussion of the interpretation of the play from a director’s perspective, points out that, according to the popular romantic interpretation of the play, “Nor do the lovers resolve anything themselves, but are pawns in the hands of unseen and unknown outside forces.” On the contrary: the interference of the fairies certainly leads to complications, but the lovers bring their personalities, preferences, and habits in with them. The rude insults which Hermia and Helena fling at one another do not stem from any enchantment, rather from the vices that reveal what their friendship lacks.
Is either world ordered? The most ordered character in the play, I would submit, is Nick Bottom, the weaver. Bottom and the other mechanicals prove another mirror by parodying the entire play with their own little plot and performance. As Young says:
“If any group of characters in the play may be said to exist primarily for purposes of reflection, it is the mechanicals. This does not subordinate them in importance; they could easily claim supreme position as the busiest glasses in this comedy of reflection. What is more, they bring to the climax of the play its biggest and funniest mirror.”
In Act Three, the ridiculous scene of Titania’s doting on Bottom occurs. Bottom here speaks with the voice of reason, albeit unknowingly. In his endearingly asinine way, he recognizes that Titania’s love is misplaced, and at the same time articulates the irrationality of love:
“Methinks, mistress, you should have little reason for that. And yet, to say the truth, reason and love keep little company together nowadays; the more the pity, that some honest neighbors will not make them friends.” (3.1.143-148)
Perhaps that is why the whole plotline of the young lovers is so fraught with disorder: their love bears no relation to reason. The completely ludicrous affection of Titania for Bottom, stems from the same love-juice that causes Lysander’s temporary ‘love’ for Helena and Demetrius’ dubitable love for her.
In the end, Theseus dismisses the young lovers’ story as a mere dream, a figment of their imagination, claiming that “the lunatic, the lover and the poet / Are of imagination all compact” (5.1.7-8). In his effort to maintain the order and reason of his realm, he ignores the mysterious nighttime escapades which reveal how his realm really has no stronger claim to order than that of the fairies—except, perhaps, its lack of miraculous love potions. The subjects of Theseus and the subjects of Oberon share the same petty faults, and the dream-like, ethereal nature of the fairy world serves as a mirror for the humans who find themselves there. As Michael Taylor, regarding the inevitable comedy ending, observes: “The violence of their quarrelling is as real as the happiness of their union.”
Indeed, the vices which Shakespeare attributes to the lovers temper somewhat the exhilaration of the final wedding feast. However, the combination of order and disorder more accurately represents fallen human nature, and the playwright may have intended to balance the fairytale nature of A Midsummer Night’s Dream with a concrete message about humanity. We cannot say with certainty, for “Man is but an ass, if he go about to expound this dream” (4.2.209-210).