By Barbara Mowat and Paul Werstine
Editors of the Folger Shakespeare Library Editions
In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare confronts us with mysterious images of romantic desire. There are Theseus and Hippolyta, about to be married; both are strange and wonderful figures from classical mythology. Theseus is a great warrior, a kinsman of Hercules; she is an Amazon, a warrior-woman, defeated in battle by Theseus. His longing for the wedding day opens the play, and the play closes with their exit to their marriage bed.
Within Theseus’s world of Athens, two young men and two young women sort themselves out into marriageable couples, but only after one triangle, with Hermia at the apex and Helena excluded, is temporarily replaced by another, this time with Helena at the apex and Hermia excluded. At each point the fickle young men think they are behaving rationally and responsibly as infatuation (sometimes caused by a magic flower, sometimes not) leads them into fierce claims and counterclaims, and the audience is shown the power of desire to take over one’s vision and one’s actions. By presenting the young lovers as almost interchangeable, Shakespeare displays and probes the mystery of how lovers find differences—compelling, life-shaping differences—where there seem to be only likenesses.
In the woods outside of Athens, where the lovers suffer their strange love experiences, we find yet other images of desire, these involving the king and queen of Fairyland and an Athenian weaver transformed into an ass-headed monster. King Oberon and Queen Titania are engaged in a near-epic battle over custody of an orphan boy; the king uses magic to make the queen fall in love with the monster. The monster—a simple weaver named Bottom who came into the woods with his companions to rehearse a play for Theseus and Hippolyta’s wedding—is himself the victim of magic. He has been turned into a monster by Oberon’s helper, a hobgoblin or “puck” named Robin Goodfellow. The love-experience of Titania and Bottom is a playing out of the familiar “beauty and the beast” story, and, like the stories of the young lovers, it makes us wonder at the power of infatuation to transform the image of the beloved in the lover’s eyes.
Finally, there is the tragic love story of “Pyramus and Thisbe,” ineptly written and staged by Bottom and his workingmen companions. In this story romantic love leads to a double suicide—provoking only mirth in the onstage audience but reminding us once again of the extraordinary power of desire.
In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays, Shakespeare stages the workings of love in ways that have fascinated generations of playgoers and readers. After you have read the play, we invite you to turn to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Modern Perspective,” written by Professor Catherine Belsey of Cardiff University.