I have chosen option no. 3 for this paper, exploring the course of true love in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I will be addressing the four following questions: * What functions in the plot do Puck and Bottom serve?
* What purpose is served by having Titania fall in love with an ass? * How does the famous line, “The course of true love never did run smooth” characterize the affairs of the couples? * Why do the fairies intervene in human affairs?
The Bard gives little development of his characters in this, possibly the greatest of his comedies. There’s no specific central character (protagonist) but most of us think of Puck as the most important role in the play. His mischief and his quick wit put a great deal of the play’s events into play with his magic, with both his intentional pranks on the human characters (such as turning Bottom’s head into the head of an ass) and fateful errors (spreading the love potion onto Lysander’s eyelids instead of Demetrius’s). Even more to the point, Puck’s impulsive spirit, fun-loving humor, and clever, suggestive words infuse the tone of the play. “Wild contrasts, such as the implicit comparison between the rough, earthy craftsmen and the delicate, graceful fairies” govern this play (Birmingham, 2012). Puck gives the audience/readers the impression that he possesses most of (if not all of) these distinctions. He has a solid grace but not as sweet as the other fairies. Being Oberon’s fool (comic relief) he has a fondness for being vulgar and insensitive, which brings about his transforming Bottom’s head to an ass’s all for his own pleasure. He has a good heart but has a tendency to play cruel jokes at the expense of the human characters.
Another point worth making is the contrast between the unearthly beauty of all the other fairies and Puck’s “somewhat bizarre looking” (Birmingham, 2012). His looks, compared to those of a “hobgoblin” are much less comely than those of a typical fairy. While the humor concerning Puck is impish and understated, the humor regarding Nick Bottom is wildly uproarious. He is the key character in the subplot concerning the craftsmen’s play of Pyramus and Thisbe and “he dominates his fellow actors with an extraordinary belief in his own abilities (he thinks he is perfect for every part in the play) and his comical incompetent (he is a terrible actor and frequently makes rhetorical and grammatical mistakes in his speech)” (Birmingham, 2012). The comedy revolving around Bottom really comes from the fact that he is completely ignorant of how ridiculous he really is. His monologues throughout the play are over the top and self-important, and he’s fools himself into thinking that everyone else takes him seriously.
This all comes to a head, however, when Puck turns Bottom’s head into an ass’ head. When Titania, under the influence of the love potion, falls head over heels for Bottom (in his ass-headed form), he is convinced that this is fully legitimate. The fact that he is unaware of his head being turned into ass’s head corresponds to his incapability to see the ridiculousness of the idea that Titania could honestly fall for him. This, I think, is the purpose served in having Titania fall in love with an ass… simply because Puck has the ability to make Bottom an even greater fool than he already is and also for Titania to be humbled before Oberon in order for him to win the Indian prince she is raising to use as his knight. In explanation of the famous line, “Ay me, for aught that I could ever read, could ever hear by tale or history, the course of true love never did run smooth…” (Act 1, scene 1, Bevington, 2009) Lysander says these lines as means to calm Hermia after she despairs over the complications of their love, especially that her father Egeus has expressly forbidden the two of them to marry and that Theseus “has threatened her with death if she disobeys her father” (Birmingham, 2012).
Lysander reminds Hermia that there have always been overwhelming obstacles to challenge and threaten true love since it first came into being. He goes on to name several of these obstacles, most of which appear throughout the course of the play: age difference (“misgrafted in respect of years”, Act 1, scene 1, Bevington, 2009), conflict perpetrated by friends or loved ones (“or else it stood upon the choice of friends,” Act 1, scene 1, Bevington, 2009) or “war, death, or sickness” (Act 1, scene 1, Bevington, 2009) that make the concept of love seem “swift as a shadow, short as any dream” (Act 1, scene 1, Bevington, 2009). Hermia then goes on to say that despite these obstacles, lovers must keep on fighting these difficulties as the price required for the result of happiness between the two of them. The statement Hermia makes here set the play’s “exploration of the theme of love’s difficulties and presage what lies ahead for Lysander and Hermia: they will face great difficulties” (Birmingham, 2009) but will nonetheless persist in their light together and finally achieve the happy ending they both so long for.
The main reasoning behind the fairies trafficking in human affairs is mainly to divert Demetrius from killing Lysander, to break his arrogant pride and realize his cruel treatment of Helena. Oberon’s interfering in human affairs is even more disruptive to the love balance, with the love potion serving as a symbol that the human lovers will not figure out their problems on their own; instead, the outside power of magic will determine the love complication. I really think Shakespeare intended this play not to be a celebration of true love but for it to be a playful mockery of “the melodramatic afflictions and confusions that love induces” (Birmingham, 2009). Demetrius, Helena, Hermia and Lysander are not primary romantic models but are instead compassionate individuals dropped into the perplexing situation of a romantic charade.
With a title like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, it comes as no real surprise that one of the key topics of the play is dreams, seeing as how they pertain to darkness and romance. With the coming of dawn, which ends the magical farce in the forest, the lovers are under the impression that their stay in the woods was all a dream. The fairies reach a similar conclusion of their own as well: “just as the fairies mended their mischief by sorting out the romantic confusion of the young lovers” (Birmingham, 2009), Puck explains the fantastic environment of the play by explaining it as an expression of one’s dream state. This brings us to my favorite line in the play, mainly because it wraps up the entire point Shakespeare was trying to make about love being a mere game among the immortals (the fairies):
“If we shadows have offended, think but this, — and all is mended, — that you have but slumber’d here while these visions did appear. And this weak and idle theme, no more yielding but a dream” (Act 5, scene 1; Birmingham, 2009).
Birmingham, Hilary. (2012). Spark Note on “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. Retrieved September 15, 2012, from http://www.sparknotes.com/shakespeare/msnd/ Bevington, David (2009). “The Necessary Shakespeare”.
New Jersey: Pearson Education, Inc.