Shakespeare’s comedies, like those of most Renaissance playwrights, involve love and its obstacles. Much of the comedy in A Midsummer Night’s Dream derives from the attempt of Lysander and Hermia to remain together while overcoming the “blocking figure” (the adult authority figure who attempts to hinder the love of a young couple). The overcoming of an obstacle (in this case, Egeus) functions as a common motif in Renaissance comedy. The audience must wonder, however, whether Lysander and Hermia, as well as Demetrius and Helena, actually love each other. While it is the love potion that alters the objects of the men’s affections, one may interpret the juice as a metaphor for lovers’ inconstancy. The juice only contains magic because the male lovers do not possess a fervent and true love. It is significant that Lysander and Demetrius change their minds about whom they love, but Hermia and Helena never waver; perhaps Shakespeare correlates faithfulness with gender.
Audience members generally support the relationship between Lysander and Hermia—partly because her father does not. They are struck by his indifference to his daughter’s happiness: He prefers that she die rather than be happy with a man of whom he does not approve. Egeus, furthermore, provides no reason to Theseus as to why he does not support Lysander; it is as if he disapproves for arbitrary reasons—merely to exert his will. His abuse of paternal authority renders him absurd but dangerous nevertheless. His support for Demetrius colors the audience’s point of view of the young lover. If one supports Lysander, one cannot approve of Demetrius, who initially enters the woods in the role of obstructionist, not lover.
Male domination also plays an integral role in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Shakespeare links the romantic relationships with male authority and aggressiveness. When Demetrius cannot persuade Hermia to love him, he attempts to rape her. Theseus marries Hippolyta after first subduing her physically in battle. Oberon, already coupled with Titania, feels compelled to control her by possessing her changeling, of whom he is jealous.
The rude mechanicals choose poorly by deciding to perform a lover’s tragedy at a wedding celebration, yet the choice may not be far-fetched in terms of the plot. Although this comedy ends happily, much of the play demonstrates the potential for tragedy. Demetrius could have raped Hermia. Helena could have ended up with both suitors while Hermia lost both. Oberon could have remained in his bitter struggle with Titania, who, in turn, could have remained in love with an ass (Bottom). These relationships could have terminated forever. Part of the comic charm of the play derives from the fact that the complications work out so that the conclusion, which could be unhappy, results in joy, marriage, and order.
The play is partly about order and disorder. Athens represents the order of a civilized society, while the forest symbolizes disorder and chaos. The woods proves more appealing, however, because it allows for freedom, while the city, with its law that a woman who refuses to marry the man whom her father chooses may die, demonstrates the evils of a restrictive culture. The romantic relationships work themselves out successfully in the disordered, not in the ordered, society.
The play concludes with the play-within-a-play, as the audience watches Hermia and Lysander, Helena and Demetrius, and Theseus and Hippolyta view the play of the rude mechanicals. The lovers gently mock the incompetent actors, with humor but without malice. The play-within-a-play permits Shakespeare to provide commentary and inside jokes regarding stagecraft.
Many people have categorized A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a romantic comedy. How accurate is this assessment?
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of Shakespeare’s most beloved comedies, is generally thought of as a sparkling romantic farce. However, while the play is lovely and comic, it also has a strong trace of darkness and cruelty, a sinister underside that is inextricable from its amorous themes. Midsummer may end with a series of happy weddings, but along the way it clearly depicts how male-female relationships can involve a great amount of cruelty, with the potential to spread discord throughout society.
Nearly all the male characters threaten their female counterparts with violence at some point in the play. Theseus, for example, won Hippolyta not through seduction or courtship but by military conquest, having vanquished the Amazons, her tribe of woman warriors. He says to her in the opening scene, “I wooed thee with my sword, / And won thy love doing thee injuries,” drawing an explicit connection between love and assault. Later in the same scene, Egeus publicly threatens to kill Hermia, his daughter, if she does not consent to marry Demetrius. Oberon, for his part, does not put Titania at risk of true physical danger, but he does brainwash her with a love-potion for the express purpose of humiliating and humbling her. Lysander may be the only male who does not consciously seek to harm his mate. But even so, Hermia cannot escape peril. Just after the bewitched Lysander abandons her, she wakes from a nightmare, trembling with fear as she describes how she dreamt she saw “a serpent [eat her] heart away.” Though Lysander isn’t in control of his own actions at this moment, Hermia’s subconscious still registers his desertion as an act of violation.
The female characters in the play, particularly Helena and Hermia, end up internalizing much of this violent behavior. In the most vicious exchange in the play, Lysander bluntly tells the lovesick Helena that he does not love her and that he is “sick” when he looks at her. He warns her that he will “do [her] mischief” in the woods—a far more menacing promise when we realize that mischief had a much stronger connotation in the period, meaning something closer to “harm” or “evil” than “naughtiness.” Helena, however, is undeterred. She accepts the aggression directed at her and turns it into an argument for her stamina, pleading with him to treat her like his “spaniel,” since the more he “beat[s]” her, the more she will “fawn” on him. Eventually, the two young women fall victim to the hostility in the air and turn on one another. Their confrontation in Act III, scene ii is often played as a comic catfight, but that ignores the poignancy of Helena’s speech, in which she pleads with her “sister” not to “rend [their] ancient love asunder” by conspiring with the men to shame her. Hermia, however, does not listen, and the two dissolve into a torrent of mutual abuse. Even at the end of the play, when the couples are paired off harmoniously, it is unclear whether the women’s intimate friendship will ever be repaired.
Throughout the play, romantic strife is portrayed as a force that can spread, like a contagion. At one point, the whole earth becomes infected. When the sparring fairy monarchs, Titania and Oberon, confront each other in Act II, scene i, Titania describes a tumultuous world filled with sickly clouds and rotting vegetation. She insists that this chaos has sprung from her and Oberon’s quarrel, and that they are the “parents” of the planet’s current state of turmoil.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream ends with several happy (if magically-induced) weddings, but even the joy of the closing celebration does not completely banish the play’s threatening undercurrent. The nuptials are commemorated with a clownish performance, but significantly, the craftsmen’s theme is a gruesome one: a romantic couple that meets a violent and tragic end. In addition, the blessings offered by Puck and Oberon seem to evoke more terror than good will. Oberon offers the more traditional blessing, wishing the couples fertility and lasting love. However, he also mentions “blots of nature,” such as harelips and other deformities, calling attention to the dangers that can befall vulnerable children even as he wards them away. Puck, for his part, spends most of his speech describing all the horrible things that lurk outside the wedding chamber door, such as hungry lions and ghosts from “gaping” graves. In the end, we don’t know if the newlyweds are inside experiencing the flush of matrimonial bliss or if the discord that has been bubbling up throughout the play has unsettled them: As Puck closes the door against the terrible creatures of the night, he shuts the audience out, as well. With the ultimate fate of our protagonists so ambiguous, A Midsummer Night’s Dream cannot properly be called a romantic comedy.