What does Theseus mean in A Midsummer Night’s Dream when he claims that "The lover, and the poet / Are of imagination all compact"?
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In Shakespeare's play, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Theseus comments that love and imagination are similar. He says:
The lunatic, the lover, and the poet are of imagination all compact.
This means all three are "wholly composed of imagination—which in Shakespeare's time meant the 'power of seeing things.'*
When Theseus delivers this line, it is in response to Hippolyta's recounting of the Athenian lovers' experiences in the wood. Theseus is tolerant of behavior that might otherwise appear foolish or elementary to him in that he is a well-seasoned lover and soldier.
However, where Hippolyta has little time for some of the characters in the play, especially Bottom and his crew, Theseus is a truly great leader, showing his people, whatever their station in life that he cares for them and extends a gracious tolerance toward each of them.
Theseus explains that one's perception, whether a lunatic, lover or poet, colors his or her beliefs in what he sees. Theseus believes that imagination governs all three of these areas in that imagination deals with a person's perceptions. For example, if someone perceives he is loved, regardless of whether it is true, he believes it and acts accordingly.
The lunatic and poet also deal with live based upon perceptions, which Theseus credits to imagination. If this is the case, that people respond to situations, and therefore each other, based not upon a reality, but upon what they imagine to the case. One might ask what the other person who is the object of such affection is supposed to do if there is not a real love, but simply someone else's perception of love.
Either way, it does not present a positive picture for the lunatic, lover or poet, in that they are not grounded in reality, but in what they imagine exists.
If this, then, is how Theseus perceives the world of men and imagination, one wonders if two people in love simply are "imagining" the same thing? Are they really not in love?
And where does Theseus, himself, falls into the mix with the feelings he is trying to engender in Hippolyta. As a good and honorable man, I cannot expect he would want nor anticipate that Hippolyta's feelings for him would be less than sincere, or the subject of imagination. These are interesting questions, based on Theseus' "perceptions," though I'm not sure how we could hope to answer them with certainty.
*Shakespeare : The Major Plays and the Sonnets, G.B. Harrison, Editor. Published in New York: by Harcourt, Brace and World, Inc.; copyright, 1948.
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