How is the theme of love treated in the first act of William Shakespeare's play A Midsummer Night's Dream?

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vangoghfan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The theme of love is important not only in Act 1 of William Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream but throughout the drama as a whole. Among the ways in which the theme is relevant to the first act are the following:

  • The play opens with Theseus referring to his impending marriage to Hippolyta. These lines foreshadow the important role that married love will play at the very end of the work.
  • No sooner is the discussion of marriage concluded than Egeus comes to complain to Theseus that although Egeus has given his permission to Demetrius to marry his daughter Hermia, Lysander has enticed her heart instead. This complaint foreshadows all the later romantic complications that will absorb so much of the middle part of the play. Egeus’s complaints also raise another important issue involving love in this play: should lovers have their own choices about whom to love, or should their love be dictated by others?
  • The opening act already begins to raise another important theme of the play: the extent to which love is motivated by mere passion versus the extent to which it is a more reasonable kind of affection. The opening act emphasizes conflicts involving love; the final act will emphasize the achievement of harmony in matters of love. 
The opening act already begins to foreshadow the theme of the complications of love.  Thus, Hermia has no interest in Demetrius since she loves Lysander, but Helena, another young woman, doeshave a very strong interest in Demetrius, who, however, desires Hermia.  Much of the comedy of the play results from these kinds of badly matched desires, as can already be seen in this snatch of dialogue between Hermia and Helena about Demetrius:

Hermia. I frown upon him, yet he loves me still.
Helena. O that your frowns would teach my smiles such skill!
Hermia. I give him curses, yet he gives me love.
Helena. O that my prayers could such affection move.
Hermia. The more I hate, the more he follows me.
Helena. The more I love, the more he hateth me.

The complications here foreshadow the even more intricate complications that will occur when the play later moves into the forest.

  • The theme of love is also stressed in the second scene of Act 1 – the scene in which the “rude mechanicals” first begin to discuss their plans to put on a play about two famous lovers, Pyramus and Thisbe. This discussion foreshadows all the hilarity that will later be associated with the mechanicals in general and with their ultimate presentation of the play in particular.

In short, Shakespeare uses Act 1 to establish the importance of the major theme of love and to foreshadow, in various ways, the appearance of that theme later in the drama. All that is missing from the first act is the presence of the fairies, who add so much humor and charm to the middle part of the play and who contribute their own complications to the theme of love.

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A Midsummer Night's Dream

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