A Midsummer Night’s Dream Essay: Love and Marriage

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Love and Marriage in A Midsummer Night’s Dream  

There is something to be said for the passionate love of young people, and Shakespeare said it in Romeo and Juliet. The belief that any action can be excused if one follows one's feelings is a sentimental notion that is not endorsed by Shakespeare. Thus, Theseus' suggestion in 1.1 of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, that Hermia marry a man she does not love rather than "live a barren sister" all her life would seem perfectly sensible to Shakespeare’s contemporaries.


Shakespeare writes for a public who views marriage unsentimentally. At all levels of society, from king to commoner, marriage is entered into for commercial and dynastic reasons. People marry to increase their property and to secure its inheritance. Wise parents, who may dispose of their children in marriage, will of course try to avoid matches which the contracting parties find intolerable, but there are limits to this. On the other hand, children have a duty of obedience. And the husband Egeus proposes for Hermia is by no means unattractive; his chief defect is that he is not Lysander, whom Hermia loves, perhaps intemperately.


The play shows how the ideal relationship is that in which the affections and the reasonable mind are both in harmony. At the start of the play, both Demetrius and Helena are clearly at fault. Demetrius has allowed his love for Helena to abate; she, by fawning on him, is guilty of doting, which exacerbates his dislike. An honourable man would stand by his promise and try to re-discover his love for Helena, and it is this which draws Lysander's taunt that Demetrius is "spotted and inconstant". In time, perhaps, Demetrius might reconsider Helena's merits, but in the brief ti...

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...up with mud", for example; we learn of "the farthest steep of India", of Oberon's various favorites.


Against the beautiful lyric and exotic account of the changeling's pregnant mother we have the homely jollity of Puck's pranks on the "fat and bean-fed horse" or "wisest aunt". Oberon gives us many set-piece descriptions: of the "bank whereon the wild thyme blows", of the "fair vestal" whom Cupid's bolt failed to hit, and of Titania's "seeking sweet favours for this hateful fool" (Bottom), among others. Here Shakespeare shows us what can be done "in this kind", lest the failure of Pyramus and Thisbe lead us to the conclusion that the theatre can only depict what can literally be brought on stage. In watching a play filled with references to moonlight, darkness, day-break we do well to recall that it was first performed in open-air theatres in daylight!


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