I want to look back a second to my earlier blog post on Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 . I mentioned that part of what Shakespeare is doing in his sonnet is challenging the poetic form of the blazon , that of comparing one’s beloved to a list of cliched objects of beauty. While the poem undermines our expectations of a love poem, Shakespeare claims at the end that despite falling short of all these benchmarks of beauty (eyes like the sun, lips as red as coral, or breasts as white as snow) he still finds his beloved’s beauty beyond all comparison. How can this be, since Shakespeare has spent 12 lines of the poem arguing for just the opposite? How can the speaker see his beloved as “rare/ As any she belied with false compare”? The answer lies in that the speaker’s perception of the beloved is unique, subjective, personal and cannot be judged by any objective, material standard. In other words, love cannot be explained through reason, which is the major theme of Midsummer Night’s Dream.
All of Shakespeare’s comedies begin with the world in a state of chaos. In MND Shakespeare begins with a very common theme to his comedies – true love denied. On the eve of Theseus’ marriage to Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, Egeus brings his daughter, Hermia, and the two rivals for her love, Demetrius and Lysander. It seems that while Egeus wants to give his daughter’s hand to Demetrius, she has been wooed and fallen in love with Lysander. (In Athens, as well as Shakespeare’s England, the father did have legal standing to choose his daughter’s husband.) Through the conversation that follows (Act I, sc. 1, 20-127), Theseus points out to Hermia that she has three options: either marry Demetrius, live a chaste life as a nun, or be willing to die.
Now an important detail that comes out in this opening conversation is that Lysander and Demetrius are equal by almost all measures. As Lysander argues, “I am, my lord, as well deriv’d as he,/ As well possess’d” (line 99-100). Even when Theseus attempts to persuade Hermia into marrying Demetrius by noting that he “is a worthy gentleman,” she is quick to respond, “So is Lysander.” Now Theseus’ retort is significant here: “In himself he is;/ But in this kind, wanting your father’s voice,/ The other must be held the worthier” (lines 52-55). So the only difference between these two suitors is that one has Egeus’ permission to marry Hermia and the other does not.
If we look at the matter from Hermia’s perspective, the rational choice would be Demetrius: his is the easiest way for her to avoid either death or spending her life in a convent. However, she resists her father’s will, telling Theseus that she would rather waste her life as a nun rather than unwillingly marry Demetrius (lines 79-82). So why can she just not give her love to him and save herself such grief? Even Hermia seems not to be totally aware herself of why? “I know not by what power I am made bold”(line 59): Hermia in this line suggests that it is a mystery why she is resisting her father’s will. The theme that this opening scene introduces is the irrationality of love. It is not that Hermia can point to a specific quality of Lysander’s that makes him the worthier suitor, nor can she put into words her motivation for choosing him over Demetrius and so placing her very life in jeopardy. Her love for Lysander is not rational but irrational.
Helena as fourth wheel
Before the opening scene of MND closes, Shakespeare introduces the final character of the young lovers subplot, Helena. As she reveals to us, Demetrius was once in love with her: “For ere Demetrius look’d on Hermia’s eyne,/ He hail’d down oaths that he was only mine”(lines 242-3). In her soliloquy that concludes the opening scene, Helena remarks that she is judged by all of Athens to be as beautiful as Hermia: “Through Athens I am thought as fair as she” (line 227). So when the two woman are placed side by side, there does not seem to be a rational explanation for why Demetrius would pursue Hermia, who rejects his overtures of love, and Helena, who is head over heels in love with him. You may begin to notice here how Hermia’s situation in a way parallels that of Demetrius’: both of their loves seem to be irrational, causing them grief and frustration, while a logical, easier alternative is open to them.
Helena goes on in her soliloquy to sum up this theme of love’s irrationality: “Things base and vile, holding no quantity,/ Love can transpose to form and dignity./ Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind,/ and therefore is wing’d Cupid painted blind” (line 232-235).
To translate the essence of Helena’s lines here: love can cause a person to see that which is of little value in the world’s point of view into that which is priceless. Love is a subjective experience, according to Helena, one that does not conform to an outside perspective. For love to “look with the eyes” would mean that there would exist a objective, material reason for a person to fall in love; however, to love with the mind suggests that love does not rest on what everyone else sees. (It might be helpful to read “mind” referring to one’s imagination.) In Act V, Theseus echoes this idea of love’s transformative power when he compares “the lunatic, the lover, and the poet”:
The lunatic, the lover, and the poet
Are of imagination all compact.
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold;
That is the madman. The lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt. (line 6-10)
What connects all of these figures to together is their imaginative ability to perceive the world not objectively but through their own unique perspective.
So while you read MND, see if you can identify other moments in the play where character’s perspective does not reflect what others see.