An Analysis of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM (Shakespeare)
by Joseph Suglia
I normally avoid discussing the plots of works of literature. I prefer to dwell upon the words as they are written on the page, to interrogate and interpret the language of the text. If I have hesitated to talk and write about plot, it is because conversations about plot generally ignore the language in which the text is written. The plot seems to exist somewhere outside of the language of the text. After all, a plot could have been invented before the actual text was composed, and when literary critics discuss plot, they must be abstract. It is rare to cite the text when describing a plot, for the obvious reason that plot is structure, not literary language.
Since the world is essentially plotless, why should a literary work have a plot at all? From the late nineteenth century onward, much of Western literature has discarded the mandate of the plot (Lautreamont, Flaubert, Nerval, and Proust were vanguards in this respect). Even earlier, to refer to a single example: Shakespeare’s The Tempest does not have much of a plot. This is not to suggest that plots vanished since the late nineteenth century; millions of books have been written and published since that time that do, in fact, have plots. They are summoned into existence by writers and readers who come to books to experience the imposition of order upon a world that is bewilderingly and overwhelmingly chaotic. There is nothing wrong with the desire to experience a closed, self-contained representation. But closed, self-contained representations belong to the province of art before the late nineteenth century and to the province of entertainment. Modern art poses questions that it does not itself answer (this is the job of the interpreter); works of modern art have open-ended structures.
Despite my reservations about plot, I would like to adumbrate the design of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (the first edition of which was published in 1600). By doing so, I think that we can learn something about the configuration of this massively complex play and, perhaps, about how plot in general works and perhaps even why so many people have the desire for a plot. I will fix my gaze upon the structure of the play. Again, this will have the necessary but unfortunate consequence that I will have to disregard much of the play’s filigreed, aureate verse.
The initiating conflict takes place in the first scene of the play: Egeus sentences his daughter to death or a loveless marriage. He forbids his daughter Hermia from marrying Lysander, the man she loves. She must choose between death and marriage to Demetrius, a man who she definitely does not love. The Athenian duke Theseus alleviates Hermia’s dilemma somewhat by allowing her to choose between a marriage to Demetrius and a life of celibacy, but still reinforces the father’s judgment with all the power of Athenian law. It is the sentencing of the father, and the legitimation of the sentence by the law, that drives both lovers, Hermia and Lysander, into the moon-bathed forest. The law impels the lovers into the forest, and the law will bring them out of the forest. Theseus revokes his judgment when Demetrius has a change of heart, but let us not ignore the fact that the play begins with the law and ends with the law. The man who sets into motion the inaugural conflict of the play, Theseus, will also resolve all the conflicts at the close of the play. He promulgates that Hermia must make her decision by the day of Theseus and Hippolyta’s wedding, and, indeed, all the conflicts will be reconciled in a triple marriage: the marriage of Lysander and Hermia, the marriage of Demetrius and Helena, and the marriage of Theseus and Hippolyta.
The conflict between Father and Daughter will be enlarged and mapped onto a second conflict between Oberon and Titiana, the Fairy King and the Fairy Queen. Just as Theseus represents the Law of Athens, Oberon will represent the Law of the Fairy World. Oberon’s most serious task is to suppress the insurrection of his fairy queen.
There is a further conflict between the world of the fairies and the world of the human beings. Puck (also known as “Robin Goodfellow”) is the Interferer. He is the agent of the supernatural that will intervene in the affairs of the morals (as will his lord Oberon). The intrusion of the supernatural into human affairs will be one of the motors that pushes the plot forward; this conflict, in turn, will be applied to conflicts between Lysander and Hermia and Demetrius and Helena, which tangle the plot further. The eavesdropping Oberon intervenes in the relationship between Helena and Demetrius. Oberon delegates to his jester the responsibility of intoxicating a man wearing Athenian garb with an aphrodisiac in the shape of a purple flower. The romance between Lysander and Hermia is interrupted and complicated by a mistake: Puck drugs Lysander instead of Demetrius with the juice of the purple love-narcotic.
We, then, have three pairs of lovers who are in conflictual relations with one another: Oberon and Titiana, Helena and Demetrius, and Lysander and Hermia. Theseus and Hippolyta are now in a harmonious relationship, but were once at variance with each other.
As I wrote above, the judgment of the father leads to the elopement of Hermia and Lysander. When both lovers rush into the moon-bathed forest, they turn their backs on the Law of the Father; they enter a metamorphic, transformational space (compare with the Forest of Arden in As You Like It): Within the wood, the craftsman Bottom will be translated into an assheaded man. Within the wood, Lysander will cease to love Hermia.
The forest is also a place of erogenous desire; the erotomania with which the characters are seized is mostly synthetic. Only Hermia’s desire for Lysander and Helena’s desire for Demetrius are natural, but, it should be remembered, their desire predates the exodus from the Father and entry into the forest. While in the forest, almost everyone else’s desire is artificially induced: Demetrius and Lysander only fall in lust with Helena because their eyes have been infected with flower juice. Titiana lusts after Ass Head because she has likewise been intoxicated. Under the influence of the flower, Helena and Ass Head become objects of lust.
The perversity does not end there: First, Titiana is obsessed with a child and then she is obsessed with Ass Head. After having her eyelids squirted with flower juice, Titiana’s unholy obsession with Ass Head replaces her obsession with the stolen Indian boy. Both of these obsessions are perverse: Titiana’s strange, quasi-maternal obsession with the stolen Indian child causes a scission between her and Oberon and his bride, and Titiana’s obsession with Ass Head is both drug-induced and interspecies.
Titiana’s obsession with the stolen Indian boy parallels Helena’s obsession with Demetrius. Shakespeare’s play suggests that all the love in the forest is unnatural love (with the exception of Hermia’s constant love for Lysander). Again, Lysander’s obsession with Helena, as well as Demetrius’s obsession with Helena, are both brought on by the Ketamine-like purple flower love-toxin.
The forest is a place of disunification. Within the wood, the human characters are separated from the agents of the supernatural: While in the forest, the fairies are hidden from the craftsmen and from the lovers. The fairies are concealed from the lovers, but the lovers are not concealed from the fairies. Furthermore, the craftsmen are not aware of the existence of the fairies or the existence of the lovers in the forest. This concealment allows the fairies — in particular, Puck — to complicate the plot further by drugging Lysander and, later, Demetrius. (Again, Puck confuses Lysander for Demetrius, and this mistake creates pandemonium in the forest: Hermia is abandoned, and now Helena becomes the object of lust of the two male lovers.) And yet the audience will find this amusing, since we know that their lust is not genuine. This is what I would call “comedic irony” — the counterpart of dramatic irony. Dramatic irony surfaces when the audience knows an uncomfortable truth that a character on the stage or screen does not know: Romeo thinks that Julia is dead, but the spectators know better. Comedic irony is when the audience does know an amusing truth that a character on the stage or screen does not know: that Lysander and Demetrius only “love” Helena because they have been infected by the juice of the purple flower, Love-in-idleness. Laughter comes about through the contradiction with human reason, as Kant wrote in the Third Critique: “Es muss in allem, was ein lebhaftes, erschütterndes Lachen erregen soll, etwas Widersinniges sein (woran also der Verstand an sich kein Wohlgefallen finden kann).”
The characters, then, are balkanized into three mutually exclusive communities: the lovers, the fairies, and the craftsmen. The exception to this is Bottom, who, when transformed into Ass Head, belongs both to the human and the fairy communities.
The forest is also the place of another form of sexuality that would have been considered perverse in the Age of Elizabeth. The play is adorned with two female characters — one earthly, one ethereal — who are enormously aggressive: Titiana and Helena.
Both Helena and Titiana hunt the men they desire. Much like her namesake in All’s Well That Ends Well, Helena is a woman who has unreciprocated love for a man and who refuses to take “Yes” or “No” for an answer. Helena herself acknowledges that this is an inversion in gender roles. Helena to Demetrius:
“Your wrongs do set a scandal on my sex. / We cannot fight for love, as men may do; / We should be woo’d, and were not made to woo” [II:ii].
Titiana is even more sexually aggressive than Helena. She imprisons Ass Head in the forest:
“Out of this wood do not desire to go: / Thou shalt remain here, whether thou wilt or no” [III:i].
I would like to emphasize how remarkable this is: A female character is restraining a male character against his consent. This doubtless would have provoked laughter in the Elizabethan audiences for which it was performed because it would be considered absurd and unnatural. Consider, further, that the entire plot is set in motion by Helena’s furious jealousy and talionic rage. I don’t think that this is a matter of comedy, however. Without Helena being thrown into a rage, Demetrius would never have pursued Hermia into the forest, nor would Helena’s father and the Duke of Athens and his minions chased them. Were Helena not in the forest, she would not have been eavesdropped upon by Oberon, and Oberon would not have delegated Puck to drug the killjoy Demetrius with the flower-shaped aphrodisiac. When Puck mistakes Lysander for Demetrius, this creates chaos in the forest.
All of this was propelled by Helena’s Borderline Personality Disorder.
The play’s raison d’etre is to amuse the spectatorship with a spectacle of deformations and denaturations and then reassure that same spectatorship that the Great Chain of Being is still intact or has been restored. The crises of the play are, in sum, as follows: The Fairy Queen, Lysander, and Demetrius are intoxicated with love-sap. Within the forest, the characters belong to mutually exclusive societies. The play-within-the-play is interrupted. Titiana and Helena go against their traditional feminine roles and pursue male characters. The Fairy Queen and the Fairy King hate each other. There is animalization of the human (the becoming-ass of Bottom). Characters are mistaken for one another (Lysander is confused with Demetrius). The four lovers are single, as are the Duke and the Duchess-to-be.
In the final act, the power of the floral aphrodisiac has (in most cases) dissolved, the character-tribes that were once separated from one another are now integrated and interleaved (the craftsmen, the duke and duchess, the fairies, the lovers), the harlequinade is performed, Titiana and Helena are no longer playing the role of the huntress, the Fairy Queen and the Fairy King are no longer at variance with each other, Bottom has returned to his human shape, everyone knows who everyone else is, and six of the principal characters are getting married. I would like to highlight what the culmination of the plot means:
- No more drugs.
- No more separateness.
- No more interruption.
- No more perverse sexuality.
- No more conflict.
- No more bestialization.
- No more confusion of identity.
- No more bachelorhood.
Love does not triumph over marriage in the play; marriage triumphs over love. At the beginning of the play, to state it again, Theseus mandates marriage between Hermia and Demetrius; the only thing that changes is that now, there is a mandatory marriage between Hermia and Lysander. The play begins with the compulsion of marriage, and it ends with three compulsory marriages. It is not the case that Hermia frees herself from a marriage that is decreed by the Athenian state; she subjects herself to a different marriage that is decreed by the Athenian state.
Marriage is the Imprint of the Father and the Imprint of the Law. As Theseus says to Hermia:
“Be advis’d, fair maid. / To you your father should be as a god: / One that compos’d your beauties, yea, and one / To whom you are but as a form in wax / By him imprinted, and within his power / To leave the figure, or disfigure it” [I:i].
Let us not forget that marriage is the effect of the Law of the Father and the Law of the State. As he explains himself to the Duke of Athens, Lysander’s speech is broken off by what rhetoricians call aposiopesis, and Egeus summons the law:
“Enough, enough, my lord; you have enough! / I beg the law, the law upon his head!” [IV:i].
Another ambiguity in the plot that has never been sufficiently clarified: Does Demetrius genuinely desire Helena at the close of the play, and has the spell of the flower worn off? His desire for her was a fabricated desire, brought about by the magical flower. Is his desire for Helena now authentic? On what basis could we say that it is? In Shakespearean comedy, as I have written many times before, all of the principals shall be married, whether they want to be or not. Demetrius’s marriage to Helena might very well be a mandatory marriage, a marriage that is contrary to love, impelled by the unreciprocated love of a woman, the dictates of the Athenian state, and the constraints of the plot. This same pattern will become integral to All’s Well That Ends Well: Even the name of the pursuing female character (Helena) will be the same. Demetrius:
“I wot not by what power—/ But by some power it is—my love to Hermia, / Melted as the snow, seems to me now / As the remembrance of an idle gaud / Which in my childhood I did dote upon; / And all the faith, the virtue of my heart, / The object and the pleasure of mine eye, / Is only Helena” [IV:i].
He knows not by what power he has fallen out of love with Hermia and fallen into love with Helena. Notice that Demetrius separates the source of his new love for Helena from his own mind and his own body. The power that compels him to desire Helena, then, is something exterior to his self. Could the power of which he speaks come from the lingering effects of the flower-drug?
There are two instances of prodiorthosis in the play, or what are called today “TRIGGER WARNINGS.” Prodiorthosis = a warning to the audience that something offensive or shocking is about to be said or displayed. The second is a TRIGGER WARNING after the fact (if such a thing be possible):
Quince: “If we offend, it is with our good will. / That you should think, we come not to be offend, / But with good will” [V:i].
Puck: “If we shadows have offended, / Think but this, and all is mended, / That you have but slumber’d here / While these visions did appear” [V:i].
The “shadows” are the characters themselves, since the work of art is itself a dream, and Puck reminds us that the adventure in the oneiric forest is a dream within the dream. As I have written elsewhere, Shakespearean comedy is conjugal propaganda, and the contours of the plot are shaped by a wedding. A Midsummer Night’s Dream itself was most likely written on the occasion of a wedding and first staged at a wedding. This is worth remarking upon because conjugality is the transcendent value of the play. The sexual tension that is stimulated and aggravated throughout the play ends in the moderation of marriage, the institutionalization of sexuality. The perversity and the savagery of the huntresses in the play (Titiana, Helena) is tamed by marriage. As the second prodiorthosis reminds us, the entire plot might have been a dream, an erogenous dream that is cancelled out by a mass-wedding. The wildness of an erotic dream fizzles out into the crushing boredom of marriage.
From all of the above I draw the principle: Plot is a literary artifice that creates the illusion that the world is organized. But there is no prestabilized harmony that holds together the world.
Dr. Joseph Suglia