“What matters in the end is not whether characters ‘really’ love each other or not — since anyone after all can love anyone else — but whether their illusions interlock.” – Terry Eagleton

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Act Three, Part Two

By Dennis Abrams


Today, we’re going to take a look at the other side of Act Three – the four lovers wandering through the woods, and the role of Puck in uniting it all.

For me, what the ever-changing loves and combinations of Demetrius, Lysander, Helena and Hermia seems to indicate is the complete and utter randomness of love.  It is through the eyes (in their case more than literally), and whether Helena ends up with Demetrius or Lysander is, in the long run, probably meaningless.

But to go back:  Once the lovers arrived in the woods, they found it nearly impossible to leave.  Oberon (a father figure who is often doubled successfully in stage productions with Theseus) attempts to resolve the love triangle by casting a spell on Demetrius, but Pucks blunders and instead anoints the slumbering Lysander with the ‘love juice’ distilled from a magical flower by mistake.  Lysander awakes, falls promptly in love with Helena, and very immediately everything begins to go wrong.  Although, as in so many stories and plays, the wood offers liberation from the oppressiveness of court (or of everyday life) – here it complicates rather than resolves the lovers’ experience.

This initial confusion sets the stage for other transpositions, and the lovers turn against each other with alarming ease.  The effect is terrifying for those who have to deal with it – which is to say not those who are actually transformed (Lysander and Demetrius remain oblivious), but those around them.  The issues at stake are expressed by Hermia as she struggles to deal with the fact that Lysander has apparently (and instantaneously) changed from her devoted lover to a man who claims to ‘hate’ her and adore Helena instead:

Hate me – wherefore?  O me, what news, my love?

Am I not Hermia?  Are not you Lysander?

I am as fair now as I was erewhile.

Hermia cannot believe (why should she?) that Lysander looks the same yet behaves so differently – and demands whether she, too has visibly changed.  (Lysander, though drugged, has already introduced the issue to Helena, crying ‘Who will not change a raven for a dove?’

And of course they are not the only ones caught up in the confusion.  Demetrius, recently anointed by Puck in an attempt to straighten things out, has just announced that he once again loves Helena (as apparently he did before the play began).  But instead of accepting him gladly, she switches her position, believing – not unlike Bottom – that her one-time friends are ‘bent/To set against me for your merriment.’  The irony of this turnaround is sharp:  just a few scenes before, she had loudly lamented that she was not as ‘fair’ as Hermia, and that all would be well if only they could switch identities:

Demetrius loves your fair – O happy fair!

Your eyes are loadstars, and your tongue’s sweet air

More tuneable than lark to shepherd’s ear

When wheat is green, when hawthorn buds appear.

Sickness is catching.  O, were favour so!

Your words I catch, fair Hermia; ere I go,

My ear should catch your voice, my eye your eye,

My tongue should catch your tongue’s sweet melody.

Were the world mine, Demetrius being bated,

The rest I’d give to be you translated.

But, as it turns out, being ‘translated,’ as the whole situation has been translated, Helena finds that she simply cannot adjust – something hinted at to, by the strained and forced texture of her language, all the more obvious in a play which is otherwise so rich and imaginative linguistically.

This unnerving sense of familiarity and alienation is climatically expressed in the mock fight between Demetrius and Lysander in Act Three, orchestrated throughout by the magic of Puck.  Their rivalry goes back to the opening of the play – except now it’s Helena, not Hermia, who is being fought over.  Like the similarly farcical combat between Sir Andrew Aguecheek and the disguised Viola in Twelfth Night, this fight is seemingly all in the mind; but, as the Dream repeatedly demonstrates, the deluded mind can be a rather terrifying place to be.  Yet again, the situation is neither one thing nor the other.  Though both men are at being led ‘so astray/As one come not within another’s way’, their aggression is desperate – and desperately personal.  Having boasted of the ease with which he shifts shape, ‘Sometimes a horse I’ll be, sometime a hound,/A hog, a headless bear, sometime a fire’, Puck is the perfect symbol of what Demetrius and Lysander are both fighting and fighting over:  as the critic Terry Eagleton said, he is the ‘elusive space,’ both everything and nothing, that represents their whole experience in the wood.


From Tanner:

As Puck says over the sleeping lovers, when their eyes have been duly corrected:

And the country proverb known,

That every man should take his own,

In your waking will be shown.

Jack shall have Jill;

Nought shall go ill;

That man shall have his mare again, and all shall be well.

This is the conclusion towards which the play moves.  Bemused eyes are ‘released’ from all deformities and ‘monstrosities’ of vision (or vision of ‘monsters’); all shall go well, and all things shall be at peace; and, unlike the stalled inclusiveness which ends the ‘dashed’ wooing games of Love’s Labour’s Lost, here there is the certainty that Jack shall have his Jill.  In this sense, at least, A Midsummer Night’s Dream does ‘end like an old play.’

But not before we have witnessed the confusions and ‘transpositions’ precipitated by doting infatuations touched with midsummer madness.  The effect on the discrete but converging worlds of the courtiers, the fairies, and the mechanicals, is rather as Theseus describes ‘a tangled chain’ – there is ‘nothing impaired, but all disordered.’  (V,i,126).  The ‘disordering’ is not exclusively due to the operations of the love juice.  The blocking, or deflecting power of the paternal prohibition (familiar in comedy since comedy began – it is the negative which provokes the play, driving young love to stratagems of circumvention), comes into operation immediately, and effectively send all the young lovers away from the palace and into the fairy-haunted wood.  Egeus, father of Hermia, bursts into the first scene ‘full of vexation.’  He has promised Hermia to Demetrius, and accuses Lysander of having ‘bewitched’ her and ‘stol’n the impression of her fantasy.’  It is an arresting charge, implying that he has, with all sorts of tricks and magics (dis-figured, trans-figured?) her ‘fantasy’; and, as Frank Kermode noted, one way and another, ‘the disorders of fantasy (imagination) are the main topic of the play.’  Egeus continues:

With cunning hast thou filched my daughter’s heart,

Turned her obedience, which is due to me,

To stubborn hardness.

He then proceeds to set a fair example of ‘stubborn harshness’ himself, by begging ‘the ancient privilege of Athens’ by which he can ‘dispose’ of his daughter as he wishes – which here means, her obedience, or her death ‘according to our law.’  Theseus, the responsible ruler, reluctantly backs him up, telling Hermia that she must obey her father:

Or else the law of Athens yields you up –

Which by no means we may extenuate –

To death, or to a vow of single life.

Near the end, when Egeus again cries ‘I beg the law, the law,’ Theseus simply brushes him (and ‘the law’ aside) – ‘Egeus, I will overbear your will’ (IV,i,182).  As usual, the ‘unextenuable’ inflexibilities of ‘the law’ in Act I have, by some other ‘law’ of comedy, mysteriously melted away by the end of play.  We are, somehow, in a different place.  Transported.

Egeus maintains that Lysander has worked on Hermia, and ‘turned her obedience.’  ‘Turn’ – comes from ancient words implying ‘rotation’ or ‘deviation from a course.’  If you just think of some of the compounds – turncoat, turnover (kind of tart, amount of business), turnstile, turn-up (on a garment, for the books, what a bad penny always does) – you can begin to get a sense of what an indispensable word it is concerning human doings and dealings and makings; and how wide-ranging are its ramifications and applications.  And, of course, it is a simple word for ‘metamorphosis’ – when someone turns into someone, or something, else.  It is such an unobtrusive, familiar word, that it can easily slip past unnoticed.  And yet, this play ‘turns’ on it.  There are, as I see it, three major deployments of the word, but when you start to look, you find that the play is full of turns and turnings.  Hermia complains that love ‘hath turned a heaven unto a hell’ (I,i,207), so she and Lysander resolve to ‘from Athens turn away our eyes’ (I,i, 218).  Puck promises to pursue the frightened mechanicals through the woods, ‘Like horse, hound, hog, bear, fire, at every turn’ (III,i,122).  Dear, imperturbable, self-sufficient Bottom invariably has ‘enough to serve mine own turn’ (III,i.152).  To the drugged eyes of Demetrius, ‘snow…turns to a crow’ set next to the whiteness of Helena’s hand (III,i,142); while poor Helena simply thinks they are all laughing at  her ‘when I turn my back’ (III,i,238).  Oberon (whose name may be related to that of Auberon, god of the red light of dawn, in old French) sometimes makes ‘sport’ with ‘Morning’s love’ as the first beam of sun plays on Neptune’s domain, ‘and ‘Turns into yellow gold his salt green streams’ (III,ii,392 – part of the everywhere ongoing alchemy of nature).  When it comes to judgments – say, as between players, ‘A mote will turn the balance, which Pyramus, which Thisby, is the better’ (V,i,320).  And, if things can turn, so they can re-turn – as when the sobered and clarified Demetrius says of his heart ‘to Helen is it home returned’ (III,ii,172).

More notably, when Oberon realizes that Puck has put the love juice in the wrong eyes, he says:

Of thy misprision must perforce ensue

Some true love turned, and not a false turned true.

The ‘misprisions’ of love itself, when true, turns inexplicably to false, and false turns magically to true, are a central and animating concern of the play.  When the young lovers wake up out of their night’s madness, and find themselves, like Oberon and Titania, ‘new in amity’ (IV,i,90), they cannot, looking back, quite believe that it was all real.  Even now, they don’t know if they are truly awake, or still asleep.  One imagines them rubbing their eyes.”


And finally, from Garber:

“Just as Costard in Love’s Labour’s Lost is closely in tune with the nature of desire (‘Such is the simplicity of man to hearken after the flesh,’ so Bottom knows more about love than do the Athenian lovers.

What, after all, are those lovers like?  For one thing, they are apparently indistinguishable from one another, despite the fact that the play opens with Egeus’s strong insistence that Demetrius is preferable to Lysander.  We learn nothing about their financial expectations, and little about their families, except that Lysander has an aunt, of ‘great revenue.’  As suitors, they seem equally ‘eligible.’  Indeed, Puck cannot tell them apart.  Having been instructed to anoint the eyes of an Athenian, he chooses the wrong one, transforms Lysander into a suitor for Helena rather than Hermia, and begins the whole process of comical and dangerous disordering in the wood.  In this sense, then Lysander and Demetrius are somewhat akin to the twin brothers in The Comedy of Errors.  Distinguishing between them is all-important, but also virtually impossible; in modern productions their costumes are usually color-coded so the audience can tell who is who.  The same is true for the women as for the men.  Here preferences are even more violently expressed.  One moment both men swear their love to Hermia, and the next – breaking an oath – they both swear fealty to Helena, attributing the change to ‘reason.’

In a way highly characteristic of Shakespeare, we get, from the perspective of the distraught Helena, a glimpse backward into the ‘schooldays’ friendship’ and ‘childhood innocence’ when the two young women were girls, ‘sisters,’ and, effectively, twins:

We, Hermia, like two artificial gods

Have with our needles created both one flower,

Both on one sampler, sitting on one cushion,

Both warbling of one song, both in one key,

As if our hands, our sides, voices, and minds

Had been incorporate.  So we grew together,

Like to a double cherry:  seeming parted,

But yet an union in partition,

Two lovely berries moulded on one stem.

So, with two seeming bodies, but one heart…

This idyllic vision of undifferentiated mutuality is ruptured by adolescence, by courtship, and by heterosexual desire.  In A Midsummer Night’s Dream the memory of this moment is already nostalgic.  The affecting portrait of the two young girls sewing and singing side by side is spoken from the point of view of loss and betrayal:  ‘Is all the counsel that we two have shared –/the sisters’ vows, the hours that we have spent…/O, is all quite forgot?’  The comic energies of the play will pull in another direction.  Differentiated by their male suitors, these heretofore identical young women, whose very names seem twinned, suddenly appear as opposites.  Thus one of the funniest moments in the dramatic action occurs in what might fairly be called a catfight between Hermia and Helena in act 3, scene 2, a scene in which the two women compare their physical appearance.  Helena, playing the part of the injured innocent, calls Hermia a ‘puppet,’ and Hermia, so recently the object of both men’s desire, seizes upon this word as an explanation for their otherwise inexplicable desertion:

Puppet?  Why, so!  Ay, that way goes the game.

Now I perceive that she hath made compare

Between our natures; she hath urged her height,

And with her personage, her tall personage,

Her height, forsooth, she hath prevailed with him –

And are you grown so high in his esteem

Because I am so dwarfish and low?

How low am I, thou painted maypole?  Speak,

How low am I?  I am not yet so low

But that my nails can reach unto thine eyes.

This is a scene worthy of any modern soap opera, and it doubtless has inspired several.  Helena has the wit to keep saying the words ‘low’ and ‘little’ throughout the balance of the scene to the baffled and infuriated Hermia.  Directors obligingly follow what seem to be clear hints here, casting a tall blonde as Helena and a shorter brunette as Hermia.  But surely they are also missing the point, which is that appearances are relative, or, as Helena remarks, ‘Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind,/And therefore is winged Cupid painted blind’  Surely the scene would be even more comical if the difference between the two women were slight or nonexistent.

Another sign of the lack of understanding of love that seems to be a universal condition at the play’s beginning is the constant repetition of the sign-word ‘dote,’ which we have seen to stand in for shallow love, self-love, or the condition of being in love with love rather than with another person.  Lysander says that Helena ‘dotes,/Devoutly dotes, dotes in idolatry/Upon this spotted and inconstant man’ – Demetrius, who has inconstantly abandoned her for Hermia.  Moments later Lysander will wish her well in the same terms (‘Helena, adieu,/As you on him, Demetrius will dote on you’), whereas Helena complains of Demetrius’ ‘doting on Hermia’s eyes.’  Oberon, describing the magic love-juice, says it ‘[w]ill make or man or woman madly dote/Upon the next live creature that it sees,’ and this power is demonstrated by Titania’s instant infatuation with Bottom.  ‘O how I love thee, how I dote on thee!’ she cries.  Oberon, watching her feed her ass-headed lover with a ‘bottle,’ or bundle of hay, is belatedly seized with compassion.  ‘Her dotage now I do begin to pity,’ and forthwith commands the reversal of the enchantments.  Finally Demetrius, awakening in the fourth act, explains to Theseus as best he can why he has returned to Helena:  ‘[M]y love to Hermia,/Melted as the snow, seems to me now/As the remembrance of an idle gaud/Which in my childhood I did dote upon.’

On one end of the scale, then, is Titania’s lust for the animal/man Bottom.  And on the other side, equally of concern, is the resistance to sexuality and sexual love exhibited by Hermia in the wood.  She has run off with her suitor, but she sharply rejects his invitation that ‘one turf’ should be a pillow for them both in the wood. ‘[G]entle friend,’ she says, ‘for love and courtesy,/Lie further off, in humane modesty.’  This seems perfectly in keeping with what a well-brought up young girl ought to say and think, but it is in fact the small event that produces major trouble.  When Puck comes upon them sleeping separately, he thinks Hermia must be the scorned lady he has been sent to assist, and he denigrates Lysander as a ‘lack-love’ and ‘kill-courtesy.’  Hermia’s dream, in which she is menaced by a serpent while Lysander sits by ‘smiling at his cruel prey,’ suggests that Lysander and the serpent are one and the same, the feared and desired lover split into two fantasy figures, the sexual tempter and the distant observer.  But what does he observe?  Her desire, or just his own?  As in Romeo and Juliet, so also in A Midsummer Night’s Dream the question of women’s eroticism is addressed directly in a manner both sophisticated and nuanced.  A young woman, sexually experienced and sheltered by parental supervision, finds herself on the brink of a dangerous and exciting adventure with her lover.  In a similar way, Demetrius  has warned Helena not to follow him into the wood, which he explicitly describes to her as a place of wildness and sexual risk.

Taken together, the stories of Titania and Bottom, Hermia and Lysander, Helena and Demetrius – and Thisbe and Pyramus – tell a complicated tale about sexual desire.  It is a tale that is complicated even further by the list of women, briefly mentioned by Oberon, who were seduced and abandoned by Theseus long ago, before his engagement to Hippolyta.  (‘Didst not thou,’ he says accusingly to Titania, ‘lead him through the glimmer night/From Perigouna whom he ravished,/And make him with fair Aegles break his faith,/With Ariande and Antiopa/”  Shakespeare’s source here is the ‘Life of Theseus’ in Thomas North’s 1579 translation of Plutarch’s Parallel Lives;  ‘Antiopa’ is another name for Hippolyta, the Amazon Queen.

The playwright could easily have omitted this reference to Theseus’s infidelities, which seem so out of character.  The Theseus described by Oberon in this moment seems anything but the benevolent and mild-mannered Athenian ruler we have come to know.  The inclusion casts a somber light over the play, deepening the experience of the more harmless and even comical infidelities of Lysander and Demetrius.  Furthermore, for any in the audience who are aware of the second half of this story, the narrative behind the play is even more troubling.  The child of the union of Theseus and Hippolyta, according to Plutarch, was the fanatically chaste young man Hippolytus, whose tragic death comes as a result of his stepmother Phaedra’s lust for him, and, indirectly, because he chooses to honor Artemis, the goddess of chastity, but not Aphrodite, the goddess of love.  The ‘happy ending’ of this play of romantic love is in the theater almost completely satisfying.  But with Oberon’s caution about progeny in the final moments, and his expressed hope, so soon to be dashed, that the offspring of the newly married pair ‘[e]ver shall be fortunate’, a mythologically minded spectator may be reminded that closure – in general and in this particular case – can only be achieved by forgetting or ignoring what comes next.

The play thus strikes a careful, though also a playful, balance between ‘cool reason’ and the dangers of the irrational.  And those dangers are everywhere.  There is freedom in fleeing from a repressive parent and a repressive law, as Hermia does, to follow her lover into the wood; there is freedom and possibility in choosing love and marriage over the nunnery.  But there is a parallel danger, as we have seen, in excessive sexuality and desire:  in the dream of the snake invading Hermia’s little Eden, and in the example of Titania doting blindly on the transformed bottom.  When Titania wakes and calls out amorously to Bottom, we have the word of Puck, the amused bystander, for what transpires:  ‘My mistress with a monster is in love.’  Or, as Titania herself will later express it, ‘My Oberon, what visions have I seen!/Methought I was enamoured of an ass.’  This is dream, too, and these are visions.  (How many modern lovers, once they have emerged from infatuation – in + fatuus, ‘folly’ or ‘foolishness’ – could adopt Titania’s rueful exclamation as their own!)

There is danger, too, in the very ambiguity of the wood.  The same attributes that make magic possible also make it dangerous.  Around the edges of this enchantment lurks the possibility of real madness, as contrasted with the delicious ‘midsummer’ variety, the state of the lunatic rather than the lover or the poet.  (A ‘lunatic,’ afflicted with the kind of madness that was governed by the changes of the moon, is not so different, we might think, from John Lyly’s Endimion, in love with Cynthia, the goddess of the moon – commonly read as a figure for Queen Elizabeth.)  In the world of the wood there is no definition.  Hermia and Helena, the scansion of whose names, like ‘Montague’ and ‘Capulet,’ suggests that they are in a way interchangeable and indistinguishable, are, as it turns out, all too easily confused and swapped.  The result is comedy, but also chaos.  It is no more orderly for both men to love Helena than for both to love Hermia.  When Puck leads the two Athenian men, Lysander and Demetrius, ‘up and down, up and down,’ in the darkness, pretending to be first the one and then the other so that they flail helplessly against the dark and fall down, exhausted though unhurt, they are fighting not only each other’s specters but also ‘Puck,’ imagination, the dark things of the wood.  And they are fighting, too, their own double and divided selves.

Puck makes mistakes, and in so doing he increases, rather than decreases, confusion, as he admits to Oberon:

Believe me, king of shadows, I mistook.

Did not you tell me I should know the man

By the Athenian garments he had on?—

For Puck, such confusions are a source of pleasure rather than concern:

And so far blameless proves my enterprise

That I have ‘nointed an Athenians eyes;

And so far am I glad it so did sort

At this their jangling I esteem a sport.

His pleasure here is spectatorial, like that of the Princess of France in Love’s Labour’s Lost (‘There’s no such sport as sport by sport o’erthrown’)

But the human lovers, unlike Puck, have permanent identities in the social world, and they cannot exist forever in a condition that shrouds them in darkness, renders their affections unstable, and leaves them prey to the darker side of the imagination.  ‘Am not I Hermia?  And are not you Lysander?’  There are questions that need to be asked, but also that need to be answered.  The ambiguity of the dream state is a crucial, liminal stage, but for the Athenians lovers and for Bottom it is a stage that must be experienced and left behind.  At the same time, the imprint of this salutary instability, this firsthand encounter with fantasy and folly, will change them.”


So group…a question for you.  The woods – dark and dangerous?  light and magical?  How do you see it?



Our next reading:  A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act Four

My next post:  Sunday evening/Monday morning  — focusing on one of my favorite passages:  Bottom’s Dream.

Enjoy.  And enjoy your weekend.

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