What is Shakespeare telling us about love in A Midsummer Night's Dream?
Shakespeare tells us many things about love in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Among those many things is the idea that love is actually a foolish emotion. However, regardless of the foolishness of love, since he gives the play a happy ending, he also depicts love as beneficial rather than harmful.
The foolishness of love is portrayed in several places. It is especially portrayed in the very first scene in which we learn that Demetrius really does not have a known, rational reason for suddenly preferring Hermia over Helena when he was engaged to Helena before he saw Hermia. As Helena points out herself, she is recognized all over Athens as being just as fair is Hermia. Helena further points out that love is really a figment of the imagination, rather than any concrete, rational reality, as we see in her lines:
Things base and vile, holding no quantity,
Love can transpose to form and dignity.
Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind;
And therefore is wing'd Cupid painted blind. (I.i.237-240)
In saying that "[l]ove looks not with the eyes, but with the mind," she is saying that love is not based on any objective reality, such as beauty; rather, love is guided by the "mind," or the imagination.
A second place in which the foolishness of love is portrayed is in Act 3, Scene 2, after both men have been enchanted to be in love with Helena rather than Hermia. Puck's mix-up has caused a great deal of strife among all four lovers, leading to accusations and insults. Helena especially accuses both men and her best friend of joining forces to mock her. Puck rightly sees the four lovers' behavior as foolish, especially Helena's. Helena should be rejoicing because she is now loved by two when before she was loved by none. Likewise, both men should have enough sense to know that it is useless to fight over one woman. Puck rightly characterizes the foolishness of the Athenians' behavior and the foolishness of love in his lines, "Shall we their fond pageant see? / Lord, what fools these mortals be!" (III.ii.115-116).
However, while Shakespeare depicts mortals as foolish and love as a foolish emotion, he pairs all the lovers in happy unity, creating an emotionally satisfying ending. Therefore, while Shakespeare seems to be saying that love is foolish, he also says that it can be as equally satisfying as it can be foolish.