‘Whilst it is often regarded as Shakespeare’s lightest romantic comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is best understood as a dark exploration of the sinister and disturbing nature of love. ’ To what extent do you agree? Whilst A Midsummer Night’s Dream does provide much comedic entertainment for its audience, a darker exploration of love seems to sit under the guise of bawdy comedy. Shakespeare may have intended light comedy to cover the surface of the play, however as you delve deeper, explorations of the disturbing nature of sexual desires and the unhealthy and intoxicating powers of love become clear.
The intoxicating nature of love is explored in the play, with love causing the characters to act in ways they normally wouldn’t – “I had no judgement when to her I swore” here Lysander is referring to being in love with Hermia, despite the fact the “love” he had then was real. This is placed amongst the beginning of a very comic scene, (especially in production) with the misunderstandings of the lovers leading to chaos in the middle of the play. This scene follows this traditional arch of a comedy with a disruption-taking place in the middle of the comedy.
Although directed to Helena, with his true love being Hermia, so the true meaning may be lost, the significance of the line cannot be lost amongst the comedy as it still has great relevance to the play. It was commonly believed in the sixteenth century that love had its own existence, captivating people in its power; Shakespeare seems to play on this idea in many ways. The “love-in-idleness” embodies this power as well as being intoxicating, the flower “will make a man or woman madly dote” on the next person they see – driving us to act in ways that aren’t normal.
The choice of “madly” could be Shakespeare exploring the fact love is so intoxicating; it causes us to lose a sense of self- respect and behave ridiculously. This same intoxicating power is explored at the very beginning of the play when Egeus claims Lysander “hath bewitched the bosom of my child” comparing love to some kind of witchcraft. The fact that Hermia and Lysander’s love is made to be unnatural is almost distressing, with the Elizabethan upper class view on love made to be robotic, which can be viewed as sinister by some.
Shakespeare similarly explores obsessive and unhealthy relationships that lead to distressing outcomes. This obsession is conveyed through Helena and Demetrius, where love has driven her to a point where any respect for herself is a rarity. This is so much so that she offers herself as a dog to Demetrius and allowing him to “spurn” “strike” and “neglect” her. Helena’s utter desperation causes violence to be her last resort, which is not just unhealthy but also disturbing.
The unhealthy relationship between Helena and Demetrius is not the only one that brings around a sinister view on love. Titania and Oberon also provide another unhealthy way of looking at love, with both of them unfaithful in their marriage and interestingly so with Theseus and Hippolyta – “Your buskined mistress and warrior love,/To Theseus must be wedded” “Knowing I know thy love to Theseus/” – the only other mature relationship in the play. Therefore we must wonder if this is Shakespeare’s commentary on marriages of his time.
Titania and Theseus’ affair holds a sinister exploration behind it, with Shakespeare telling us that she led “him through the glimmering night” implying that Theseus had no knowledge of what he was doing, blinded by love or just the attraction of the fairy queen. The fact that Titania also urges Theseus to have multiple affairs with other women suggests a disturbing satisfaction that she gets from causing possible upset to Hippolyta. The aggressive tone in which Titania and Oberon address each other, (“Tarry rash wanton!
Am I not thy lord? ”) lacks any element ‘light’ comedy. Instead Shakespeare seems to be exploring the thin veil of love and hate through their relationship, as the passion they share causes problems with nature and the seasons “the green corn hath rotted” something that was once fertile has been poisoned by the marital problems of Titania and Oberon. The power that their love heralds not only instigates problems for the whole world, but also leads us to think further than the surface of comedy that may surround the play.
The sexual desires of women in the play may be seen as humorous when watched in production, however in text, the effect is quite different. Titania’s affair with Bottom can be seen as extremely comedic “what angel wakes me from my flowery bed? ” the hilarity coming from the fact that a woman of a high status views an ass as an angel – a fairy queen “enthralled to thy shape” of a donkey not only focuses on Bottoms strong sexuality but is also a representation of Titania’s deepest sexual desires.
The attention to “shape” suggests her erotic fantasy focuses on his phallus, reflected in Kate Flint’s article ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream: the power on transformation’ – “asses were credited with amazing potency, and among quadrupeds were supposed to have the longest and hardest phallus,” The idea that Titania’s ‘ “love” for Bottom is based on the fact he has the “longest and hardest phallus” is almost disturbing.
This deep female sexuality is reflected in the sultry power of the mermaid’s song “the rude sea grew civil at her song”; it is not so much desire that Shakespeare explores here, but the power of the mermaid’s “dulcet and harmonious breath”. The subtle potency over nature is almost sinister – that female seduction can cause out of this world madness (“certain stars shot madly from their spheres”) if so, the effect of their sensuality on men could be even stronger. This dark exploration, although hidden by comedic circumstances, is evident.
It may not be clear, but Shakespeare uses Helena to convey darker aspects of love through bawdy comedy. Through a union of Elizabethan slang and an earnest chase of love “to die upon the hand I love so well” Shakespeare creates a bawdy joke, as die was slang for an orgasm, but also highlights the fact that some people would die even for someone that does not reciprocate their love. The same dark exploration is clear in the disturbing nature of men, with more phallic imagery used, but this time in coalition with the image of violence.
Theseus claims to have “wooed” Hippolyta with his “sword” the link between a kind of phallic imagery and violence explores the darker nature of men’s sexual desires. This sinister nature is also adopted in the male views of chastity. The moon, symbolic of virginity is often dismissed as something offensive in the male view, described as “cold and fruitless”. Theseus even describes the moon as one that “lingers my desires” depicting the moon as an old woman not giving a man what he wants, this image playing on the impatience of men’s sexual desires.
A similar situation also occurs between Lysander and Hermia, when she tells him to lay further away before they sleep, after his attitude of “one heart, one bed, two bosoms and one troth”. This implication of physical union seems real; however the hackneyed verse and rhyming couplets they use suggests falseness about their relationship with no real emotional intimacy. This is partnered with the fact that their characters aren’t developed beyond physical appearance, indicating stock characters – typical of a classical comedy.
Here the physical desires of man are hidden beneath a facade of comedic typicality. The most disturbing male view on virginity that Shakespeare creates in Demetrius who uses Helena’s obsessive love to make her vulnerable, it seems that he would take the advantage of “the opportunity of the night” to take the “rich worth” of Helena’s virginity. Shakespeare uses this situation to explore the sinister and disturbing side of male sexuality and the power it can have over doting females.
It is evident that no comedy can be drawn here and is a moment in the play where Shakespeare does delve deeper into how humans react to love and how we express our darkest sexual desires without any comedic veneer. Although it should not be understood as Shakespeare’s ‘lightest comedy’ there are many humorous elements in the play yet they do not eclipse the darker nature of the play. As John Keats said Shakespeare’s ‘negative capability’ allows him to explore all the darker aspects of love despite juxtaposing the comedic features that run throughout the course of the play.