Love Is Strange
Especially in A Midsummer Night's Dream
How can this play be about anything but love? The whole play oozes it, pretty much in every form. Even if the basis of the whole thing is the ambiguity between dreams and reality, this very ambiguity is manifested in the many facets of love. Some are extremely funny, some poignant, some heartbreaking, some ridiculous, some vicious, some violent. It's striking how so many interpretations of A Midsummer Night's Dream see only the amusing and happy-ending side of its love relationships. Take Harold Bloom, for example. He must be a real romantic at heart. Even though he writes that all the love in the play is “ironical” (p. 153), and Shakespeare's marriages never promise much happiness, he emphasizes the reconciliations and the marriages (though his focus is mainly on Bottom), and his quotes tend to include butterflies and cute fairies. This, of course, is not really true. I exaggerate. As always, Bloom gives a complex analysis which is very interesting, but the tone indicates that he is quite enamored by the play – as, in fact, am I! - and he is truly offended by critic Jan Kott's emphasis on the darker sides if the human sexuality portrayed in the play. I agree that Kott gets a bit carried away when he compares the play to Goya's Caprichos (I'm not going to supply you with a link, you'll have to look it up yourself) by using such words as “misshapen”, “repulsive”, “beastly, vulgar, ugly”, “whores”, “sluts” (Kott, pp. 229-230) but one really shouldn't ignore all the creepy crawlies and other icky things all over the place in the play. For example, “cankers in the mush-rose buds”, “spotted snakes”, “newts and blindworm”, “spiders...beetles black...worm and snail” (Act 2.2), all listed in a lullaby! These little fairies should get together with the weird sisters! Nor should the many instances of viciousness be ignored. I really truly love this play and agree with Bloom and most everybody else that it is one of the world's greatest masterpieces. But not in spite of the dark side. Because of it. Because the world's greatest theme – love – is so incredibly complex in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Unable in this analysis to give it the depth it deserves I will nevertheless touch upon the love between:
- Theseus and Hippolyta
- Titania and Oberon
- Titania and Bottom
- the four lovers.
Theseus and Hippolyta
These two open the play and it won't take long to analyze their love because there isn't any. As Colin McGinn points out in his book Shakespeare's Philosophy, this is a forced marriage and there is no mention of love between the two (p. 19). Indeed, Hippolyta has little reason to love Theseus who openly admits that
Hippolyta, I wooed thee with my sword,
And won thy love doing thee injuries (Act 1.1)
The wedding, furthermore, will express “pomp, with triumph” (same scene), but not love.
So why should she love him? She was a warrior queen, now she's forced to marry down, a duke, not even a king! A duke who, we notice, effectively silences her with the above lines. Egeus enters (to push the play's second forced marriage) and Hippolyta is not given the chance to reply.
The next time we see them together, toward the end of the play, they are partaking in an odd discussion about dogs (how romantic is that?!). Theseus is bragging about the wonderful barking of his dogs to which Hippolyta rather distantly responds that she's heard better, in the company of Hercules no less. Her famous line in Act 4.1, “so musical a discord, such sweet thunder,” is not, as one might expect, about the tempestuousness of love, but about barking dogs! Sometimes Shakespeare is weird.
In Act 5.1, the now married couple shows no more love than before. They coolly discuss the strangeness of the two young couples' love but show no sign of “seething brains” nor “joy and mirth” themselves. If anything, Hippolyta exerts an impersonal form of resistance against Theseus by mildly complaining about his choice of evening entertainment and by showing boredom at the play until the sincerity of the mechanicals themselves win her over.
Nor does Theseus show any love for Hippolyta. He refers several times to the consummation of the marriage but more playfully than passionately. His part in the play ends with:
...Sweet friends, to bed.
A fortnight hold we this solemnity
In nightly revels and new jollity (Act 5.1).
Hippolyta makes no reply. What's there for her to say?
Titania and Oberon
The two royal fairies have that much more to say. Here we see plenty of passion, power struggle, and love, but it is certainly not lovey-dovey love. These two do not live in domestic wedded bliss.
When we meet them they are in the midst of a raging conflict – over the custody of an orphaned boy. There is so much to analyze in this “obscure” (as McGinn calls it, page 21) reason to quarrel that I will simply have to say, google it. For my purpose it's enough to point out just a few things about the relationship between the royal fairies.
In this power struggle, nature itself is in an uproar. Titania says at the end of her long monolog, describing the violence of the disturbances:
...this same progeny of evil comes
From our debate, from our dissension (Act 2.1)
No small lovers' spat, this! Oberon sees a simple solution:
Do you amend it, then. It lies with you.
Why should Titania cross her Oberon? (Act 2.1)
He doesn't exactly question the sexual politics of male domination and when Titania rather reasonably explains why she won't give in, he secretly, after she's left, threatens her: “Thou shalt not from this grove till I torment thee with this injury” (Act 2.1).
What then becomes one of the sweetest parts of the play is intended by Oberon to punish and hurt the woman he supposedly loves. When he drops the juice in her eyes he tells her to “wake when some vile thing is near” (Act 2.2). Vile, mind you, not silly or amusing or odd. Vile. Only when he gets what he wants, the boy, (I've never really understood this part. Surely Titania was under Oberon's spell when he took the boy from her? This is very unclear in the play) is he moved to feel “pity” for her “dotage” (Act 4.1). He breaks the spell, she rejects poor sleepy goodhearted Bottom and goes off docilely with her lord and master. Bloom rejects the view that this is “only another assertion of masculine authority” (p. 156) but really, what else can it be? Nature disturbances aside, one wishes that Titania would rise once again to her original power and eloquence but like Hippolyta she has been conquered and there doesn't seem to be much room for love. Exit Titania.
Titania and Bottom
This is the sweetest love story in the play. Maybe even the most sincere? It is Bottom's singing about birds (not beetles, toads and snakes!) that awakens Titania and she is in love even before she sees his grotesque form, in other words even before Oberon's eyedrops begin to go into effect. But as soon as she sees Bottom she is enthralled with what she sees too and she speaks perhaps the gentlest words of love in all of Shakespeare:
I pray thee, gentle mortal, sing again.
Mine ear is much enamoured of thy note;
So is mine eye enthrallèd to thy shape;
And thy fair virtue's force perforce doth move me
On the first view to say, to swear, I love thee (Act 3.1).
To which the startled but dignified Bottom replies with the profound words of wisdom:
Methinks, mistress, you should have little reason for that. And yet, to say the truth, reason and love keep little company together nowadays (Act 3.1).
As Jan Kott points out, the love scenes between Titania and Bottom are often “played for laughs” (p. 228) and of course they are funny. But unfortunately they are often played for cruel laughter and they should not be. Bottom is often cast as fat and foolish. In the first place, why should fat automatically be equated with foolish, implying unworthy of being loved? In the second place, I'm not sure Bottom is even described by Shakespeare as being fat (correct me if I'm wrong, I could simply have missed it) but no matter. Regardless of his appearance, Bottom is kind, he's wise, he's enthusiastic, he's intelligent. Bloom describes him wonderfully as “unfailingly courteous” (p. 161). So why shouldn't Titania love him? That her love for Bottom is foolish may be true but who among us isn't like Bottom, astounded that someone wonderful can love us in spite of our big ears? She'd be far better off with him than with the vain and cruel Oberon. It's a shame the spell was broken.
Hermia and Demetrius, Helena and Lysander. No, no, Hermia and Lysander, Helena and Demetrius. This was not a writer's ploy, I promise. I really did, as always, get them mixed up. No wonder. Almost everybody points out that the two guys are interchangeable. As often with Shakespeare's love stories, one can't help wondering what these two young women even see in them.
But to repeat Bottom's wisdom – reason and love etc. Love them they do.
What I find surprising – although of course I shouldn't – is the men's viciousness. It is somewhat understandable that Demetrius repeatedly tell Helena to go away – her persistence and doggish (literally! - the spaniel scene is positively painful!) devotion would drive anyone crazy, and sad though it might be, most of us at some time in our lives learn to live with unrequited love whether we are the lover or the lovee.
But in the first encounter between them we see that he actually threatens her with violence:
Tempt me not too much the hatred of my spirit;
For I am sick when I do look on thee...
...I'll run from thee, and hide me in the brakes
And leave thee to the mercy of the wild beasts.
...If thou follow me, do not believe
But I shall do thee mischief in the wood (Act 2.1)
...Stay on thy peril (Act 2.2).
Lysander is even worse. Instead of just redirecting his love from Hermia to Helena under the spell of the love potion, he turns downright mean. To Helena he says:
Content with Hermia? No, I do repent
The tedious minutes I with her have spent.
...a surfeit of the sweetest things
The deepest loathing to the stomach brings (Act 2.2)
That's bad enough but to Hermia herself he says:
Why seek'st thou me? Could not this make thee know
The hate I bear thee made me leave thee so`?
...Hang off, thou cat, thou burr; vile thing, let loose,
Or I will shake thee from me like a serpent.
...Out, tawny Tartar, out,
Out loath'd med'cine; O hated poison, hence.
...Get you gone, you dwarf...(Act. 3.2).
A simple “Sorry, I've met another woman” is clearly too tame for the mile-wide mean streak in Lysander.
Poor Hermia. Her love for Lysander is the most straightforward and unwavering in the whole play but even she has her limits. This scene in the forest between the four lovers is among my all-time favorites in Shakespeare (I could write a book...). It is hilarious, tragic, poignant and profound. It should definitely not be played as slapstick, which unfortunately it often is. Here, I will have to limit my analysis to the observation that Hermia loses her temper, prompting Helena to tell the guys that “though she be but little she is fierce” (my favorite line in all of Shakespeare). Unfortunately she turns her anger onto Helena, with some wickedly funny insults (“canker blossom”, “painted maypole”).
And Helena, this unhappy misfit with the least self-confidence in the world, finally fights back. In the handbook Soliloquy the editors point out that Helena throughout the play “suffers from her physical awkwardness...in passive woe” and though there is a sense of defeat in whatever she says, “there is a lyrical stoicism” in her that leads finally to her being “overcome with rage” (p. 111 and 116).
Again, it's too bad she turns her anger from the guys (she's actually been doing pretty well at protesting against what she sees as their scorn) to Hermia but it still makes a great scene.
So the women hurl insults at each other, the men challenge each other to a duel and then they all fall asleep and wake up in love with the right person.
All a bad dream. And funny though it all was, if we really read the play, the whole play and not just the fun parts, we might see that the the dream was more of a nightmare for everybody except Bottom.
We must observe that much of the play takes place in a forest at night. To me that's scary, to Shakespeare undoubtedly even more so. Kott points out that the “romantic tradition, unfortunately preserved in the theatre through Mendelssohn's music” (p. 225) has often prompted directors to cast the forest as some kind of Tinkerbell Garden of Eden. In fact Shakespeare gives us “a forest inhabited by monsters and lamias” (Kott, p. 225 – lamias are monsters, demons and vampires, says my dictionary) and “a place of queasy shifts and disturbing fantasies, capricious and tyrannical” (McGinn, p. 21). Not a place conducive to sweet young love, or any other kind.
Which brings us back to the subject of this essay. Love. Which is undeniably strange in all its manifestations, beginning with its total absence in the two forced marriages, one consummated (Theseus and Hippolyta), the other avoided (Hermia and the man her father insists she marry, Demetrius). McGinn compares these two examples of sexual relationships with that of Titania and Bottom (possibly, or possibly not consummated). While Titania's sexual lust may be foolish and Bottom quite uninterested, it “is not evil” like the “legalized rape” in the marriage of Theseus and Hippolyta and even more so (maybe) in Egeus's command that his daughter marry the man he's chosen, or die (p. 28).
Nor is the marriage of Oberon and Titania, as we have seen, based on mutual love, companionship or respect.
One hopes of course that the marriages of the young lovers will be happy after all, in spite of the “emotional violence and masochism, the betrayal of friendship, the radical fickleness of desire..the cruelty, indifference and rage” (Greenblatt in the Norton introduction, p. 844). It was after all a bad dream, wasn't it? They really do love each other in the end, don't they? Oh, Shakespeare, why can't you ever make things easy for us? Why can't you have them say to each other, “Oh darling, I'm sorry and I promise to love you forever and be nice to you too”? Well. Frankly, because that would be boring, wouldn't it? Instead Hermia says:
Methinks I see these things with parted eye,
When everything seems double (Act 4.1).
And Helena says:
And I have found Demetrius like a jewel,
Mine own and not mine own (Act 4.1).
That's all they have to say about their love for their sweeties. And of the two sweeties, only Demetrius admits to feeling love for Helena, but speaks wonderingly of “it”, not “her”, the love itself, not the woman he loves:
The object and the pleasure of mine eye
Is only Helena...
...Now I do wish it, love it, long for it,
And for evermore be true to it (Act 4.1)
Aha! Not even love? Maybe just lust?
Oh the twists and turns! Love? Desire? Lust? Hate? Repulsion? Reconciliation? It's all quite breathtaking. As indeed is the whole play. What a brilliant cacophony of conflicting passions. And what an outpouring of reactions the world has expressed towards it. Yes, this is a “humane and wise drama” (Bloom, p. 148) but “the prevailing notions that sexual violence and bestiality are at the center” (Bloom again, same sentence) cannot be totally dismissed, indignant though Bloom and the rest of us might feel about it. And no, though we cannot deny “the pungency of the dialogue and the brutality of the situations” (Kott, p. 218), this really isn't about “animal eroticism” or “pure animality” (Kott, pp. 232-233). It is a wonderful homage to the human imagination and what nightmares and miracles it can create, sometimes at the same time. And neither miracle nor nightmare can be ignored in the play. “Those who see A Midsummer Night's Dream as lighthearted entertainment must somehow laugh off this darkness; those who wish to emphasize the play's more troubling and discordant notes must somehow neutralize the comic register in which such notes are sounded” (Greenblatt, p. 844).
Absolutely. But why must we choose? I, for one, love both sides of this madly flipping, glittery, shadowy coin. A Midsummer Night's Dream and the very strange, sweet and scary love flowing and erupting throughout it, is simply a masterpiece. Revel in it!
- The Norton Shakespeare, based on the Oxford Edition. Ed. Greenblatt, Stephen et al. Second edition, 2008.
- Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare, the Invention of the Human. 1998.
- Early, Michael and Philippa Keil, editors. Soliloquy – The Shakespeare Monologues, The Women. 1988.
- Greenblatt, Stephen. “Introduction” in The Norton Shakespeare (see above).
- Kott, Jan. Shakespeare Our Contemporary.1964.
- McGinn, Colin. Shakespeare's Philosophy. 2006.
BBC, 1981. Director: Elijah Moshinsky. Cast: Helen Mirren -Titania; Peter McEnery – Oberon; Brian Glover – Bottom; Nigel Davenport – Theseus; Estelle Kohler – Hippolyta; Pippa Guard – Hermia; Robert Lindsay – Lysander; Cherith Mellor – Helena; Nicky Hensen – Demetrius; Phil Daniels – Puck.
A fine mixture of the dark and the light in the play. Helen Mirren is as always superb and Estelle Kohler and Cherith Mellor do the best Hippolyta and Helena I've seen.
RSC, 1996. Director: Adrian Noble. Cast: Lindsay Duncan - Titania; Alex Jennings – Oberon; Desmond Barrit – Bottom; Alex Jennings – Theseus; Lindsay Duncan – Hippolyta; Monica Duncan – Hermia; Daniel Evans – Lysander; Emily Raymond – Helena; Kevin Doyle – Demetrius; Barry Lynch – Puck.
A visual masterpiece. Exciting minimalist (in spite of all the color) stage settings. Some very good acting though often too slapstick. Why use the silent narration of the boy? The play doesn't need it.
“Shakespeare Retold”, 2005. Director: Ed Fraiman. Cast: Sharon Small - Titania; Lennie James - Oberon; Johnny Vegas – Bottom; Bill Patterson – Theseus; Ismelda Staunton – Hippolyta; Zoe Tapper – Hermia; Rupert Evans – Lysander; Michelle Bonnard – Helena; William Ash – Demetrius; Dean Lennox Kelly – Puck.
An entertaining but completely lighthearted remake, placing the whole thing at an engagement party in a recreation camp. Very good cast.
The bicycle version, 1995. Director: Michael Hoffman. Cast: Michelle Pfeiffer -Titania; Rupert Evert - Oberon; Kevin Kline – Bottom; David Straithern – Theseus; Sophie Marceau – Hippolyta; Anna Friel– Hermia; Dominjic West – Lysander; Calista Flockhart – Helena; Christian Bale – Demetrius; Stanley Tucci – Puck.
An entertaining version, amusingly updated to the turn of the last centuriy, newfangled bicycles and all. Some very good moments, and Kevin Kline is the best Bottom of the four, but all of the darker sides are ignored, smiley romance dominates all the relationships and the Mendelssohn backgrounds the festivities making it one long carnival. Enjoyable but Shakespeare deserves more!
Seen on stage: no.