Imagining Love in A Midsummer Night's Dream
As Lysander tells Hermia, the course of true love never did run smooth. Often swift, short, and brief, love is besieged by class differences, by age differences, by war, by death, and by sickness. Helena's love is plagued by a different demon: indifference. The more ardently she loves Demetrius, the more thoroughly he hates her. And there seems to be no reason for his disdain: She is as beautiful as Hermia, as wealthy, as similar to Hermia as "double cherries" on a single stem. Helena's meditations present love in its guise as the childish, blindfolded Cupid, a constantly repeated image in this dream, who playfully transforms the vile into something pure and dignified. The image of blind Cupid is repeated when Titania falls in love with Bottom, the ass. Oberon's love-potion works much as Cupid's arrows are reputed to do: by impairing vision. The juice charms Titania's sight, so she is unable to see her lover for what he really is.
Love's arbitrary, irrational nature is the subject of one of Theseus' speeches. In Act V, he famously creates a connection between the imaginations of lovers, lunatics, and poets: All three see beyond the limitation of "cool reason," and all are beset by fantasies. While the lunatic's imagination makes heaven into a hell, the lover shapes beauty in the ugliest face. The poet, meanwhile, creates entire worlds from the "airy nothing" of imagination. In Theseus' opinion, all of these fantasies lack the stamp of truth; does this mean Theseus' love for Hippolyta is equally specious? The Duke would probably say no - without reasons or evidence to back up his claim - but his comments lead us deeper into the question of what constitutes love. If his love for Hippolyta is based on seemingly clear vision, what has caused him to fall in love with her rather than with someone else? A deep understanding of her personality? A reverence for her compassion or her kindness? The play doesn't tell us, but its overall logic suggests a loud "no" to both questions. In this drama, love is based entirely upon looks, upon attractiveness, or upon the love-potion that charms the eyes. Thus, for example, Hermia accounts for Lysander's surprising loss of affection by assessing her height; she is shorter and, therefore, less appealing than Helena. Like too many teenage girls in contemporary society, Hermia is plagued by doubts about her desirability. It's not surprising that body image is such a vexing issue in Western society when love is so often based on appearance, rather than essence.
Even when love is mutual and seemingly based in clear vision, it is often hampered by family disapproval. For Lysander and Hermia, love is marred by her father's desire for her to marry Demetrius. The law is on Egeus' side. All of the relationships in the play, but this one in particular, emphasize the conflict of love and law. The "ancient privilege of Athens" allows Egeus to "dispose" of his daughter as he wishes; she is his property, so he can "estate" her to anyone. His words show the violence that often supports law and points out a discord within the seeming concord of love (to paraphrase a saying of Theseus' in Act V). According to Theseus' edict, Hermia needs to fit her "fancies" to her father's "will" (I.1, 118), suggesting that Hermia's love needs to be combated by her father's authority; otherwise, the law of Athens will sacrifice her on the pyre of reason.
Yet, as noted earlier, her father's choice of Demetrius seems as fanciful and arbitrary as Hermia's choice of Lysander. Although Theseus is less willing than Theseus is to condemn Hermia to death or to celibacy, Theseus is guilty of linking violence and love: He wooed Hippolyta with a sword and won her love by "doing her injuries." Although Hippolyta seems subdued, even passive, in the play, the violence that led to their love is a constant presence. This play's representation of love is not the saccharine view presented in many modern love ballads; instead, Shakespeare returns us to our animal natures, displaying the primitive, bestial, and often violent side of human desire.
As Bottom astutely notes, reason and love keep little company with one another. The characters in this drama attempt to find a way to understand the workings of love in a rational way, yet their failures emphasize the difficulty of this endeavor. Shakespeare seems to suggest that a love potion, even though seemingly crazy, is a better way to explain the mysterious workings of sexual attraction than is common sense: Love and reason will never be friends. Nor will love ever be a controllable addiction. What fools mortals be, Puck philosophizes. And perhaps we are fools for entering into the dangerous, unpredictable world of love; yet what fun would life be without it?