A Midsummer Night's Dream
Love in Shakespeare is not always tragic, unrequited or hurtful. In three of his early romantic comedies (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Twelfth Night and Much Ado About Nothing) love is a source of pleasantry and amusement, sporting and playfulness. Familiar comic features are present in all three plays – mistaken identity (TN), match-making (MAAN) and intervening magic (AMND). Everything falls into its right place and there is no serious damage done to anybody.
There isn’t a more delicate or imaginative portrait of love than in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In this play Shakespeare draws on many fairy tales and nursery legends he had heard as a young boy, as well as the established tradition of midsummer celebrations. There was a notion in his time that love is introduced and taken away by magic, hence the play of fairies at midnight and the magical setting of the play:
I know a bank whereon the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine
With sweet musk-rose, and with eglantine;
There sleeps Titania some time of the night,
Lull’d in these flowers with dances and delight;
A Midsummer Night’s Dream was probably written to celebrate a wedding. The play starts with the announcement of a wedding and ends with a marriage ceremony for three couples – Theseus and Hippolyta, Hermia and Lysander, Helena and Demetrius. What happens in between is much the making of Puck, fairy king Oberon’s servant who is using the juice of a herb ‘ love-in-idleness’ to spin everybody into action, to confuse lovers and create fun in the enchanted forest where they all find themselves. Love appears to be a dream, kind of madness, introduced by the summer heat, a feeling governed not by reason but by fairy interventions:
The course of true love never did run smooth.
However irrational love is recognised by the characters as a transformational force. Because of its blindness and lack of judgement, love helps to bring out the best in each one of them as Helena admits:
Love can transpose to form and dignity.
Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind;.
The forest is a place of freedom and at night the lovers are free to be themselves. But Shakespeare reminds us that this is a bit of a dream and true love, however beautiful, is not always possible.