Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 592
Shakespeare’s comedies, like those of most Renaissance playwrights, involve love and its obstacles. Much of the comedy in A Midsummer Night’s Dream derives from the attempt of Lysander and Hermia to remain together while overcoming the “blocking figure” (the adult authority figure who attempts to hinder the love of a young couple). The overcoming of an obstacle (in this case, Egeus) functions as a common motif in Renaissance comedy. The audience must wonder, however, whether Lysander and Hermia, as well as Demetrius and Helena, actually love each other. While it is the love potion that alters the objects of the men’s affections, one may interpret the juice as a metaphor for lovers’ inconstancy. The juice only contains magic because the male lovers do not possess a fervent and true love. It is significant that Lysander and Demetrius change their minds about whom they love, but Hermia and Helena never waver; perhaps Shakespeare correlates faithfulness with gender.
Audience members generally support the relationship between Lysander and Hermia—partly because her father does not. They are struck by his indifference to his daughter’s happiness: He prefers that she die rather than be happy with a man of whom he does not approve. Egeus, furthermore, provides no reason to Theseus as to why he does not support Lysander; it is as if he disapproves for arbitrary reasons—merely to exert his will. His abuse of paternal authority renders him absurd but dangerous nevertheless. His support for Demetrius colors the audience’s point of view of the young lover. If one supports Lysander, one cannot approve of Demetrius, who initially enters the woods in the role of obstructionist, not lover.
Male domination also plays an integral role in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Shakespeare links the romantic relationships with male authority and aggressiveness. When Demetrius cannot persuade Hermia to love him, he attempts to rape her. Theseus marries Hippolyta after first subduing her physically in battle. Oberon, already coupled with Titania, feels compelled to control her by possessing her changeling, of whom he is jealous.
The rude mechanicals choose poorly by deciding to perform a lover’s tragedy at a wedding celebration, yet the choice may not be far-fetched in terms of the plot. Although this comedy ends happily, much of the play demonstrates the potential for tragedy. Demetrius could have raped Hermia. Helena could have ended up with both suitors while Hermia lost both. Oberon could have remained in his bitter struggle with Titania, who, in turn, could have remained in love with an ass (Bottom). These relationships could have terminated forever. Part of the comic charm of the play derives from the fact that the complications work out so that the conclusion, which could be unhappy, results in joy, marriage, and order.
The play is partly about order and disorder. Athens represents the order of a civilized society, while the forest symbolizes disorder and chaos. The woods proves more appealing, however, because it allows for freedom, while the city, with its law that a woman who refuses to marry the man whom her father chooses may die, demonstrates the evils of a restrictive culture. The romantic relationships work themselves out successfully in the disordered, not in the ordered, society.
The play concludes with the play-within-a-play, as the audience watches Hermia and Lysander, Helena and Demetrius, and Theseus and Hippolyta view the play of the rude mechanicals. The lovers gently mock the incompetent actors, with humor but without malice. The play-within-a-play permits Shakespeare to provide commentary and inside jokes regarding stagecraft.
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