In A Midsummer Night’s Dream Shakespeare plays with the theme of reason verses fantasy, using the setting of the forest as a means for the young lovers Lysander and Hermia (and others) to flee the reason-bound Athens in order to exercise their forbidden love. While this presents the metaphor that one must go outside of reason in order to experience love, Shakespeare inverts this notion later in the play, notably in Act IV when Theseus, a steadfast Duke of Athens, ventures into the woods in search for the lovers. By doing so Shakespeare creates a duality, suggesting that reason not only seeks the imagination but that love is an extension of reason as well, illustrating that in order to find balance in life and relationships one must explore and/or be present in both to find happiness.
In Act IV, Scene I, as Theseus and Egeus walk deeper into the forest when they discover the four lovers resting on the ground, having just received Puck’s remedy to his potion. Going by the logic of Puck’s love potion, that one will fall in love with the first thing they see, that fact that Theseus is the one who wakes everyone up would assume that reason would ground the lover’s desires and would make them forfeit to the Athenian ways of marriage arrangement. However, in this moment, Shakespeare performs a slight-of-hand as Theseus is the one who condones each couple’s love, stating that the “fair lovers” are “fortunately met” and “shall be eternally knit (Shakespeare, lines 177-181).” This being a far cry from the Theseus we see in Act I, in which he states that Demetrius is the worthier mate for Hermia and that she must obey her father’s will or either die or join the nunnery. Theseus’ change in perception proposes that, being a representation of reason and logic, he was required to venture into the “unknown,” love-soaked grounds of the forest in order to understand Hermia’s perspective. What’s more, unlike Hermia and Lysander, Theseus wasn’t forced to do so and by traveling “beyond” the realm of reason on his own accord Shakespeare alludes to a more symbiotic relationship between the rational mind and the fantastical woods. Such duality is also implied in Hermia’s awaking words in Act IV, “Methinks I see these things with parted eye, When every thing seems double (Shakespeare, 188-189).” Essentially stating that while reason isn’t “beyond” love, that the two are the sides of the same coin, one still must balance the two together in tandem like seeing double with one eye.
Furthermore, much like Theseus, none of the lovers express contentment until after they’ve walked within both worlds, the rational and fantastical. Beforehand, Lysander and Hermia escape into the woods specifically to avoid Athenian law, Demetrius goes in an attempt to run away from Helena (with Helena later stating frustration that her pursuits only make Demetrius hate her more) and Titania denies Oberon’s wishes for children right before he decides to give her Puck’s potion. Yet, after all their experiences in the forest, they express either fulfillment of their current situations or an increased willingness to compromise. This character development could be interpreted as a metaphor for emphatic reasoning. For example, in Act III when Lysander, under Puck’s spell, falls in love with Helena and essentially throws himself at her in similar manner that Helena chased Demetrius earlier in the play (Shakespeare, 245-337). Yet, during this scene, it’s Demetrius that defends Helena when Lysander speaks ill of her. So while Puck’s cocktail might be “Love Potion #9” it also appears to have some positive, subliminal effects on the minds of the characters, implying that logic alone isn’t enough, that the forest (i.e. love) is instrumental in having meaningful, understanding and reasonable relationships with others.
Another way in which Shakespeare explores this notion is in the complementary characteristics between the relationships of Theseus/Hippolyta and Oberon/Titania. While both are from very different worlds, each contain an amount of exploration into the other side’s mindset. Through these parallels Shakespeare conveys the absence of one aspect from the other, such as the absence of emotion from Theseus and the vacancy of reason in Oberon. In particular, Oberon’s love for Hippolyta and Titania’s for Theseus which, during their first conversation in Act II, Titania admits a desire to leave the forest (Shakespeare, 138). While she doesn’t specifically state Athens, it can be surmised by her love of Theseus that it is where she desires to be. What’s more, in symbolic terms, Titania leaving the forest implies an expedition into rational thought. Something that Oberon finds worrisome, if not threatening, resulting in him asking Puck to use his potion on an “Athenian man.” This reaction can be equated to Theseus’ reaction to Hermia’s desire to be with Lysander, going against her father’s wishes as well as going outside of the social norms. While the main different is that Theseus inadvertently drives the lovers into the woods and Oberon deliberately causes Titania to fall in love with something else, they both cause someone to be entrenched in another state of mind and, eventually, themselves as well. As Oberon prevents Titania from going into more rational territory we are shown various scenes in which Oberon (along with Puck) observe the Athenians from a distance, as though he’s studying them. This could be interpreted akin to Theseus’ venture into the forest, that Oberon is attempting to exercise empathy even though he doesn’t actually leave the forest.
This duality of mind and heart is further painted in Act V with the Wall character in Pyramus and Thisby. While the Wall is suppose to be a partition that separates Pyramus and Thisby, it ends up acting as a bridge of communication and physically connects the two lovers. Once again, this symbolism can be expanded to the rest of the characters and how their relationships have existed within the play. For instance, similar to how Pyramus and Thisby have to penetrate large boundaries in order to be together, so too does Lysander and Hermia with their “crack in the wall” being the woods. And much like talking to Theseus or Helena is equivalent to talking to a wall at the beginning of the play, both being headstrong regarding their wants and desires, Hermia and Demetrius both find ways to break through their stubbornness and eventually each party gains understanding. While Helena’s empathy for Demetrius’ is achieved through Lysander being given Puck’s potion, interpreting the forest itself has a magical force/state of mind, it can, therefore, be seen as an exploration in an alternative perspective for Helena. Actually giving Helena a view of her own behavior outside of her own self/feelings and being able to feel how she’s made Demetrius feel throughout the entire play.
This theme of tension between one’s desires and reality are notably explored in Neil Gaiman’s adaptation of Midsummer Night’s Dream within issue sixteen of his series the Sandman. During which we met Shakespeare and his traveling cast who are preparing to perform Midsummer for Morpheus, the Lord of Dreams, who has struck a deal with Shakespeare. The deal in question sees that Shakespeare write two plays commissioned by Morpheus which explore the idea of dreams and, in return, Morpheus grants Shakespeare is the ability to write timeless stories. Throughout the performance, whose audience are the actual inhabitance of Faerie, we are shown two scenes which echo the sentiments of the actual play but with more regards to Shakespeare as a person. The first of these come from Shakespeare’s son, Hamnet, who expresses that his father cares only about his stories and characters. “He doesn’t seem like he’s really there any more,” Hamnet states of his father, “I’m less real to him than any of the characters in his plays (Gaiman).” While the dilution of another’s person-hood and autonomy in lieu of one’s personal desire is abundant throughout Shakespeare, it’s very particular in Midsummer especially in regard with Theseus’ quest for Athenian perfection. Such yearning is mirrored with Shakespeare the man as well as Theseus in that both place their ideals/dreams in front of those they hold dear. Moreover, in a conversation Morpheus has with Titania, he expresses regret in giving Shakespeare exactly what he wanted. “He did not understand the price. Mortals never do,” Morpheus says regarding Shakespeare, “They only see the prize, their heart’s desire, their dream… But the price of getting what you want, is getting what you once wanted (Gaiman).” We see this attitude expressed in actual play with Lysander and Hermia, who want nothing more than to be with each other that they escape into the woods, not unknowing what the result would be. Yet Morpheus continues in stating that explaining the price to Shakespeare wouldn’t have made any different in the outcome. In the end, for Gaiman’s Shakespeare, the only thing that matters is his dreams and, much like his own characters of Lysander and Hermia, he is lost in the woods of imagination. Yet, unlike his two characters, reason doesn’t venture to ground him, nor does he go looking to be grounded, and must live life as though he is watching a play.
By creating the duality of the forest and Athens, as well as mirroring character ambitions on either side of the tree line, Shakespeare inverts the idea that reason and love are separate entities. Through illustrating characters delving into both mindsets he suggests that love seeks rational ground to stand on while reason wishes to find meaning in the unknown corners of the woods. For Shakespeare, balance in life and relationships can arrive only by developing the self and expanding our belief systems as well as our mindsets.
Shakespeare, William. “A Midsummer Night's Dream.” The Riverside Shakespeare, edited by G. Blackmore Evans and J. J.M. Tobin, Houghton Mifflin, 1974, pp. 222–249.
Gaiman, Neil, and Charles Vess. “A Midsummer Night's Dream.” The Sandman, Volume 3: Dream Country, DC Comics, 2012, pp. 53–77.