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A Midsummer Night's Dream

by William Shakespeare
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Explain the meaning and irony behind Puck's statement "Lord, what fools these mortals be!" in A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Puck's statement is ironic because Puck is the one who made the error and also because love's foolish behavior is not confined to human beings. Puck says, "Lord, what fools these mortals be!" in response to the way Lysander is trailing Helena, begging for her love because Puck put the love potion meant for Demetrius in Lysander's eyes by mistake in A Midsummer Night's Dream.

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In one of the most well-known lines from William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, the mischievous sprite Puck, or Robin Goodfellow, says to the fairy king, Oberon, "Lord, what fools these mortals be!" The line is spoken as Puck calls upon Oberon to observe the foolish behavior of Helena, Hermia, Lysander, and Demetrius—four young Athenian lovers. The quotation is ironic, as is the behavior of its speaker.

Puck is partially responsible for the absurd behavior of the lovers. Earlier in the play, Oberon seeks to end the bickering of the lovers through the use of a love potion. Puck is supposed to give the potion to Demetrius to make him fall in love with Helena. He accidentally applies the potion to Lysander's eyelids instead, causing Lysander to fall in love with Helena. This further complicates the conflict between the lovers. The love potion is meant to resolve the struggle between the humans, but because of Puck's error, the situation is not only not resolved, but it is exacerbated. It is ironic that Puck should refer to the four as foolish mortals when his mistake is partially to blame for their foolish behavior.

Puck's behavior is an ironic and comical subversion of the literary technique known as "deus ex machina." The Latin phrase translates to "God from a machine." It is used to describe a situation in which divine intervention in the lives of humans brings about a swift resolution to a seemingly insurmountable problem. In A Midsummer Night's Dream, the irresolvable issue is the humorous bickering of the lovers. In an ironic twist to the plot device, the fairies' intervention in the humans' lives not only fails to resolve the conflict, but actually makes it worse.

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In this scene, Oberon has just squeezed the purple love potion from a flower into Demetrius's eyes in order to cause him to fall in love with Helena when he wakes. Puck enters at this moment and tells Oberon that Helena is nearby, as is Lysander, trailing after and begging for her love because Puck mistakenly put the love potion meant for Demetrius into Lysander's eyes. Thinking about the comedy of Lysander being hopelessly in love with the wrong woman causes Puck to say, "Lord, what fools these mortals be."

The irony is that it was Puck who caused the problem to begin with by putting the love potion in the wrong person's eyes. Second, the foolish behavior caused by love's madness is hardly confined to the human beings. Titania, for example, queen of the fairies, makes a fool of herself by falling in love with Bottom, a lower class man who Puck has given an ass's head.

Puck is full of mischief and anticipates having fun watching the human antics caused by the misplaced love potions, but, ironically, the lunacy of love transcends both the mortal and the fairy realms. The love potions only magnify what is already built into love's lunacy, such as blindness and fickleness.

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Puck calling mortals fools is ironic because he is the one causing them to act foolish and because the fairies Titania and Oberon also act very foolish.

There are a couple of reasons that Pucks’s condemnation of mortals is ironic.  First of all, he is the one causing a lot of the foolishness.  The people he is anointing cannot control their behavior.  It is a result of a magic spell. So Puck is laughing at people for acting just the way he is forcing them to act.


Then will two at once woo one;
That must needs be sport alone;
And those things do best please me
That befal preposterously. (Act 3, Scene 2)

However, the other aspect of the people being fools has nothing to do with magic.  Love makes people do foolish things, as the play demonstrates.  The irony is that the mortals are not the only ones acting foolish.  Titania and Oberon certainly engage in their share of foolish behavior.  They fight and make up, and they drag the whole forest into their mayhem.

Titania and Oberon fight over their jealousies.  Oberon is jealous about the changeling Titania has. He is also jealous because he thinks she has something for Theseus and Titania is jealous because she thinks he has something for Hippolyta .


These are the forgeries of jealousy:
And never, since the middle summer's spring,
Met we on hill, in dale, forest or mead,
By paved fountain or by rushy brook,
Or in the beached margent of the sea,
To dance our ringlets to the whistling wind,
But with thy brawls thou hast disturb'd our sport. (Act 2, Scene 1)

Titania’s mood is not good for the forest.  I would consider her behavior foolish, and Oberon’s too.  They both kept pushing each other’s buttons, even though as fairy king and queen their behavior affected the entire forest.

In the end, foolishness abounds in this play for both mortals and fairies.  Magic or not, people in love sometimes act in ways that make no sense.  Jealousy can hit anyone, mortal or not.

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