Deception in a Classic Play

If there is one thing readers of A Midsummer Night’s Dream seem to know for certain, it is that nothing in it is truly certain. Written in the late 1500’s by William Shakespeare, this “summertime romcom” seems to suffer from an identity crisis. The barriers between reality and fantasy, love and hate, and the natural and supernatural forces are as “spotted and inconstant” as Demetrius himself (I.i.100). However, there is a single unifying force here that never seems to change, and that is the humanity of the characters.  

First, we must define what humanity means in the context of this story. Not humanity in the positive sense, such as the employment of empathy with a humane outlook, but in the sense that the motives of each of these characters are remarkably human, in a more cynical sense. Even the fairies are anthropomorphized into beings who feel jealousy, love, hatred, grief, and sympathy all in turn. How they act on these emotions differs with the use of magic and illusion, but the “psyches” of the fairies (yes, Psyche-and-Cupid pun intended) are of interesting similarity to those of the human lovers. Even Puck is not spared in this respect, as Michael Taylor says in his journal entry entitled “The Darker Purpose of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” According to Taylor, when Puck voices his famous line, “Lord, what fools these mortals be,” (III.ii.113) his “sense of superiority over his human victims is human in its pettiness.” Taylor goes on to similarly comment on the actions of Titania and Oberon, fairy royalty with supernatural power over nature and life itself, commenting that the two of them behaved more like an old married couple than fantastical beings. When we are introduced to the fairies in Act II, the fairy king and queen are causing the natural order of things to be ruined: 

Therefore the winds, piping to us in vain, 
As in revenge, have suck’d up from the sea 
Contagious fogs; which, falling in the land,  
Hath made every pelting river so proud
That they have overborne their continents.

This show of power is quite substantial and otherworldly, yet the origin for this upsetting of the natural order is an argument about who gets custody of a motherless Indian child. Taylor pipes in on this argument by dubbing it “trivial,” and points out that the eventual resolution to this argument comes in the form of Oberon tricking Titania into submitting to his wishes; this is not dissimilar to the way the human king Theseus speaks of “wooing [Hippolyta] with [his] sword” (I.i.16). Additionally, the fairy royals each seem to show jealousy for the other, with Oberon accusing Titania of fancying Theseus, to which Titania throws back his own attachment to Theseus’ bride, warrior queen Hippolyta. One would imagine fantasy creatures such as the fey, immortal and supernatural, would not be troubled with jealousy or pettiness, yet for the sake of comedy their behavior is remarkably like that of a human couple.  

One may wonder, therefore, is it solely for the sake of comedy that Oberon and Titania so resemble Theseus and Hippolyta? James Calderwood doesn’t seem to think so. In his essay, “Anamorphism and Theseus’ Dream,” he compares the play to an anamorphic image—that is, an image that requires the viewer to see it at a certain vantage point—by representing it in three parts: Athens, The Forest, and Athens (with a new perspective). To allow us to see this new perspective, Calderwood identifies the forest as what he calls a “crazed mirror of the Athenian world.” Rather than imagining the fairy world as being real and tangible, the author claims it is nothing but a dream had by Theseus and Hippolyta, born of dissent. This conflict between Oberon and Titania has arisen as a response to a couple of things.  

First, Theseus fears about the power and independence of his new bride. This is realized in Titania’s unwillingness to go to bed with Oberon and her dotage upon the changeling boy, not because she loves the boy but because he represents her love and sisterhood with his mother. The intimacy of this bond hearkens back to the feminine ties of the Amazons, of whom Hippolyta was (and still may be) their queen.

Second, Hippolyta is harboring subconscious guilt about witnessing Hermia being forced to marry someone against her will (I.i). Her former Amazon status and lifestyle comes in direct conflict with Athenian laws of chastity and patriarchal control over the lives and loves of the female subjects. Titania’s unwillingness to part with this boy who is the object of her love for his late mother, even when faced with the destruction of the land around them and the anger of her spouse, points to misgivings about the way Theseus’ governance has affected Hippolyta.

Third, just as we hear of Theseus’ courtship of Hippolyta as having “done [her] injuries,” (I.i.17) so too does Oberon woo Titania by “doing her injuries” in the form of casting a mean-spirited love spell on her and making her fall for a magically transformed Bottom. Even here does Hippolyta’s foreign character appear, because through the courtship of Bottom by the fairy queen, Titania treats the man in such a way as would traditionally befit the treatment of a woman by a man, rather than the other way around. For example, when Bottom expresses a desire to leave the forest during their first encounter, Titania responds with, “Thou shalt remain here, whether thou wilt or no” (III.ii.153). Calderwood jokingly terms this an “Amazon-on-top” position and one of the many fears Theseus could plausibly have about his war-won lover.

Then, at the end of the play, Theseus decides to subvert the law regarding marriage ((IV.i.179), a law that at the beginning of the play he himself said that “by no means we may extenuate” (I.i.120). This seems a rather large shock considering his previous views, but if Calderwood’s hypothesis about Oberon being a dream-self of Theseus is applied, it is shown that he (Theseus/Oberon) sympathizes with the four lovers, especially Helena, who we see is pursuant of a man who refuses to be with her. Theseus is told about Helena’s pursuits, and admits that he has heard about it (I.i.111), which could account for Oberon’s sympathies towards a human girl for which he, being a fairy king, should otherwise feel nothing. 

The mirroring of the denizens of the fairy realm with the subjects in Athens is discussed further in Ronald Miller’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream: The Fairies, Bottom, and the Mystery of Things” when he examines not the fairies themselves, but the mystery surrounding the fairies. “The fairies are (among other things) the metamorphic agency of love personified,” Miller argues, “and an ambivalence in the status of the fairies implies an ambivalence in the status of love.” In this, Miller was primarily focusing on Puck’s cryptic concluding monologue where the trickster fairy insinuates that the prior events might have all been simply a dream. The existence of the fairies isn’t as important as the way they are represented, and as Miller dissects their illusory presence, he presents a similar argument to Calderwood in that the fairies exist less as physical beings and more as manifestations of emotion and human pettiness. This is explained by pointing out that even before the romp in the forest, the four lovers are already being accused of witchcraft and magic. In the opening scene Egeus appeals to Theseus by claiming that Lysander has “bewitch’d the bosom of [Egeus’] child” (I.i.27). This lends a sense of mysticism to love that renders it a fantasy not unlike that of the fairies in the woods.  

Another similarity between the world of Athens and the world of the fairy wood comes in the characters of Helena, Hermia, and Titania. When Hermia and Helena fight near the middle of the play, there is a sense of lamentation of the love lost between them. Often mentioned during this time is the bond they shared as girls, a strong bond that they wish to rekindle but which was assumedly rent asunder by the intrusion of men. This same sentiment is expressed by Titania of her priestess, with whom she gossiped and shared secrets like the closest of friends. In “Individuation in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’” Maurice Hunt suggests that both parties are mistaken in their imagining of times long past by pointing out that, in the case of Hermia and Helena, “thus in their emphatic melding had no chance for true harmony and creation.” As young girls, even though they got along, they had no chance to be truly harmonious and complementary to each other. In a similar way, until Titania has conflict with Oberon, she has no way of having a harmonious union with him because they are not distinct from one another. In both cases a sense of human imperfection is necessary to individuate oneself from a friend, a lover, or a spouse.  

So, though Puck is honest in his trickery, and his suggestion that this play may all have been nothing but a dream, the humanity of the characters is the driving force of this play and something that can never be imaginary. It is what initiates the conflict, and it is what ultimately resolves the story by knitting its characters back together, this time as individuals who have each loved, lost, and have come to love again.  

Sources Referenced:

Calderwood, James L. “A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Anamorphism and Theseus’ Dream.” Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 42, no. 4, 1991, pp. 409–430.

Hunt, Maurice. “Individuation in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream.’” South Central Review, vol. 3, no. 2, 1986, pp. 1–13.

Miller, Ronald F. “A Midsummer Night’s Dream: The Fairies, Bottom, and the Mystery of Things.” Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 26, no. 3, 1975, pp. 254–268.

Taylor, Michael. “The Darker Purpose of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, vol. 9, no. 2, 1969, pp. 259–273.

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