Love and Marriage in "A Midsummer Night's Dream"

Seminar Paper, 2007

16 Pages, Grade: 3,0



Love and Marriage in "A Midsummer Night's Dream"

1. Introduction

This term paper deals with the play "A Midsummer Night's Dream" by William Shakespeare under the aspects of love including the topics of courtship and marriage.

To make it easier to understand what the paper is about and to give a short overview of the complicated relationships between the characters I will give a short plot summary at the beginning. After that I will show how love is presented in the play and what importance it has for the characters and their society. Then I would like to describe what marriage was really like in the Renaissance period and if love was really decisive for a relationship. In the end we will compare the description of love in Shakespeare’s play with the facts we know about engagements and the role of love and try to find out why Shakespeare might have presented love in the way he did.

The Literature I used for this paper does not only concentrate on the specific play “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. It also deals with other plays by William Shakespeare and with Romantic Comedy in general.

2. Plot Summary

The play takes place in Athens, where Theseus, Duke of Athens, and his fiancée Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons prepare the celebration of their wedding. During the preparations Egeus, a citizen of Athens, appears with his daughter Hermia and two men, Demetrius and Lysander. Hermia is in love with Lysander, but her father wants her to marry Demetrius. Theseus refers to an Athenian law whereby a daughter has to marry the suitor her father has chosen for her. If she refuses she has to face death or live the rest of her life in solitude as a nun. Hermia and Lysander now plan to escape from Athens by night. Hermia informs her best friend Helena, who has recently been rejected by Demetrius, so Helena decides to reveal the plan to Demetrius to win back his favour.

At the same time some mechanicals meet and arrange to prepare a play for the wedding. They decide to meet in the forest of Arden near Athens by night. In the evening, Oberon, king of the fairies, and Titania, queen of the fairies, arrive in the forest near Athens to attend the wedding of Hippolyta and Theseus. They have an argument because Titania refuses to give her Indian page-boy to Oberon. So Oberon decides to play a trick on Titania. He sends his mischievous assistant Puck out to find a magic flower, which makes the sleeping victim fall in love with the first living thing he sees when he awakes. While Puck is away Oberon sees Demetrius and Helena wandering through the forest. Demetrius is searching for Hermia and Lysander and Helena has followed him. Oberon sees how rejective Demetrius behaves towards Helena and when Puck comes back he orders him to use the flower on the young Athenian man as well. Puck first spreads some juice of the flower on the eyes of the sleeping fairy queen and then tries to find the Athenian man.

Meanwhile Lysander and Hermia, who wander trough the forest as well, decide to go to sleep. Hermia tells Lysander to lie not to close because she fears for her virginity. When they sleep, Puck appears thinking that Lysander is the man Oberon told him of. So he uses the flower on Lysander’s eyes.

Helena, who has lost Demetrius, comes by and awakes Lysander who then falls in love with her. Helena thinks that Lysander wants to mock her and leaves, Lysander follows her. Then Hermia awakes. She finds herself alone and tries to find Lysander.

Now the mechanicals meet in the forest to practice the play for the wedding. Without knowing they are very close to the fairy queens bed. Puck arrives and transforms one of the mechanicals, Bottom, so that he has the head of an ass. The other mechanicals get scared and run away. The fairy queen awakes and sees Bottom, who then she fells emediately in love with.

Puck comes back to Oberon to tell him that Titania now loves an ass’ head. While they talk Hermia and Demetrius pass by, who have met in the woods. Hermia accuses Demetrius of having killed Lysander. When Hermia leaves, Demetrius lies down to sleep. Puck and Oberon recognize their mistake and Puck uses the flower on Demetrius’ eyes. Lysander and Helena appear and Demetrius wakes up and fells in love with Helena. Now Helena is desired by both, Demetrius and Lysander, but she just feels mocked. When Hermia arrives, she does not believe what she sees. The four lovers now quarrel with each other all night and lose themselves in the dark.

Oberon and Puck now decide to put the lovers back in order. So they wait until all lovers fell asleep and then remove the magical enchantment from Lysander, so that he loves Hermia again, but they do not remove the enchantment from Demetrius.

After that Oberon releases the sleeping Titania and orders Puck to remove the ass’s head from Bottom and then the fairies dissapear.

The next morning the four lovers are caught by Theseus and Hippolyta. Since Demetrius does not love Hermia any more, Theseus over-rules the demands of Egeus and arranges a group wedding. The lovers decide that the events at night must have been a dream and so does Bottom, who awakes as well.

Back in Athens the wedding of the three couples takes place and the mechanicals perform their play, which is really bad but gives everyone pleasure regardless. Then everyone retires to bed and the fairies bless the house, the couples and their future children. Finally, Puck delivers an epilogue to the audience.

3. Love in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”

Love is a central topic in the play. H.B. Charlton even dicovers that “’What is love?’ or rather, ‘What is the place of love in life?’ is the question underlying A Midsummer Night’s Dream; []” (Charlton, 1979, p. 108) Nearly every protagonist is somehow in love but some of them are happily in love and some of them are not.

The best example for a very unhappy love is maybe Helena, who has been left from Demetrius, the love of her life, because he preferred the beauty of Helena’s best friend Hermia. Now Helena is really unhappy, desperate and also somehow jealous. What ever she does, Demetrius does not recognize her because he is fixed on Hermia’s beauty. And, much worse, he seems to love Hermia although she despises him all the time:

Helena: Call you me fair? that fair again unsay. Demetrius loves your fair: O happy fair!

Your eyes are lode-stars; and your tongue's sweet air More tuneable than lark to shepherd's ear,

When wheat is green, when hawthorn buds appear.

Sickness is catching: O, were favour so, Yours would I catch, fair Hermia, ere I go;

My ear should catch your voice, my eye your eye, My tongue should catch your tongue's sweet melody. Were the world mine, Demetrius being bated,

The rest I'd give to be to you translated.

O, teach me how you look, and with what art You sway the motion of Demetrius' heart.

Hermia: I frown upon him, yet he loves me still.

Helena: O that your frowns would teach my smiles such skill!

Hermia: I give him curses, yet he gives me love. Helena: O that my prayers could such affection move! Hermia: The more I hate, the more he follows me.

Helena: The more I love, the more he hateth me.

Hermia: His folly, Helena, is no fault of mine.

Helena: None, but your beauty: would that fault were mine!


Here one can really see how desperate Helena is and that she is jealous of Hermia and desires to be as beautiful as Hermia is. But Hermia also reminds Helena, that it is not her fault that Demetrius loves her instead of Helena.

Later in the play Helena nearly makes a fool of herself when she follows Demetrius although he does not love her. After she has told him about Lysander and Hermia’s plan to escape from Athens he sets out to find the two, but that was not what Helena had intended. She wanted him to be thankful and love her again. So she follows him into the forest which annoys Demetrius. So he says: “Hence, get thee gone, and follow me no more.” (II,1,194) But Helena keeps following him and explains to Demetrius what she wants from him:

Helena: And even for that do I love you the more.

I am your spaniel; and, Demetrius,

The more you beat me, I will fawn on you:

Use me but as your spaniel, spurn me, strike me, Neglect me, lose me; only give me leave, Unworthy as I am, to follow you.

What worser place can I beg in your love,-- And yet a place of high respect with me,-- Than to be used as you use your dog?


Here we see what H.B.Charlton means when he says: “All she asks is to be allowed to fawn and follow her lover as a spaniel.” (Charlton 1979, p.115) Helena would nearly do everything just to be with her lover Demetrius, even make such a fool of herself and call herself a dog. It is also obvious that

Helena could not bare being without her love Demetrius. Leggatt says, that “in love, the pure sight of the beloved acquires an importance that by any normal standards would be absurd.” (Leggatt, 1973, p.94) That might be another reason why the reader might find it difficult to re-enact Helena’s reasons for being so desperately in love with Demetrius as well as for following him and offering to him to be his dog.

Hermia is much more happier with her love although her relationship with Lysander is dissaproved of her father. Egeus wants his daughter to be married to Demetrius and for this reason he asks Duke Theseus for help. So Hermia gets in conflict with the law of Athens which provides that she has to marry the man her father has chosen for her or die or live as a nun. Egeus informs the Duke of the measures Lysander takes to win Hermia’s love and this is an accusation against Lysander as well. But his lecture in this case is: “presents love from an outsider’s point of view, as trivial, deceitful and disruptive of good order” (Leggatt, 1973, p.92) This can be shown distinctly in the following passage:

Egeus: Thou, thou, Lysander, thou hast given her rhymes, And interchanged love-tokens with my child:

Thou hast by moonlight at her window sung, With feigning voice verses of feigning love, And stolen the impression of her fantasy

With bracelets of thy hair, rings, gawds, conceits, Knacks, trifles, nosegays, sweetmeats, messengers Of strong prevailment in unharden'd youth:

With cunning hast thou filch'd my daughter's heart, Turn'd her obedience, which is due to me, To stubborn harshness


Of course Hermia is desperate in this situation but first she tries to explain her feelings to her father and the Duke and she defends Lysander. When the Duke says that “Demetrius is a worthy gentleman.” (I,1,52) she answers “So is Lysander” (I,1,53) to defend the lover she wants. Further more she defends her love to Lysander by saying: “I would my father look’d but with my eyes.” (I,1,57) She is aware of the fact that her father is not able to understand her feelings since he is not in love with Lysander. It is clear that Egeus can not understand his daughter’s choice, because lovers usually “are in a power that renders choice and will meaningless.” (Leggatt, 1973, p.94) After Hermia has heard what will happen to her if she refuses to wed Demetrius, Lysander speaks to Demetrius: “You have her father's love, Demetrius; Let me have Hermia's: do you marry him.”(I,1,93/94) In this Situation Lysander tries to explain to the Duke that he honestly loves Hermia while Demetrius does not. So he should have the right to wed Hermia: “I am, my lord, as well derived as he, As well possess'd; my love is more than his;” (I,1,99/100) But as the Duke does not help them, the couple finds a way out of this misery themselves.

They plan to flee into the woods by night. Here one can see that Lysander and Hermia are really sure of their love, so sure that they would leave their city, their families and even their old lifes behind just to be together. When the two lovers arrange their meeting in the forest at night Hermia falls into a rather playful, swiftly and easily speech:

Hermia: My good Lysander!

I swear to thee, by Cupid's strongest bow, By his best arrow with the golden head, By the simplicity of Venus' doves,

By that which knitteth souls and prospers loves, And by that fire which burn'd the Carthage queen, When the false Troyan under sail was seen,

By all the vows that ever men have broke, In number more than ever women spoke, In that same place thou hast appointed me, To-morrow truly will I meet with thee.


Alexander Leggatt comments on this: “She can afford to toy with her love because she is so sure of it.” and further more calls this “joking of love” (Leggatt, 1973, p.95)

She is even so sure that she risks to sleep near Lysander alone in the forest, although she is aware of the fact that her state of virginity is in danger. So she orders Lysander to sleep near her, so that she might be protected, but not too close: “lie further off yet; do not lie so near.” (II,2,52) At first Lysander is irritated by that but then Hermia explains to him why they need this seperation:

Hermia: Now much beshrew my manners and my pride, If Hermia meant to say Lysander lied.

But, gentle friend, for love and courtesy

4. Love in the Renaissance period

It would be wrong to say that in Renaissance time everyone got married without the influence of love. In addition to that, not every marriage was arranged and the parents did not always chose the partner for their child.

“In Shakespeare’s England, society had a firm structure, and it enforced rules of conduct; as a result, inclusion and exclusion were decisive events.” (Levin, 1985, p.27) In this structure of the Renaissance society every member had to find it’s place. A woman, for example, had to achieve the goal to get married, because, “those who do not marry are left like wallflowers at a dance, to be stared at by others.” (Levin, 1985, p.26) And that was of course not what the woman of the Renaissance wanted.

Moreover, a marriage as well made it possible to have sex legally. Catherine Bates explains: “With marriage, the couple are finally ushered through the door of regulated sexuality []” (Bates, 2002, p.105) Of corse, sexuality before being married was not allowed. But there has been the so called courtship, which “was in Shakespeare’s day an area of particularly intense ambiguity” (Bates, 2002, p.106) There were two understandings of the word ‘courtship’. The first one meant “the period of wooing and winning” (Bates, 2002, p.106) before getting married, but it could also be understood as “that critical period between a betrothal and its formal solemnization in marriage.” (Bates, 2002, p.106) So courtship was rather ambiguous theme.

The family was often involved in the choice of the partner, but there was no law which said that the parents had to choose the fiancé. In contrast to that, Margaret L. King found out that: “In reality, even with the advance of the notion of consent, many young women (and men) were compelled against their will or preference to marry persons chosen for them by their families.” (King, 1991, p.34)

B.J. and Mary Sokol describe the influence of the family on a marriage a little different but also similar. They say, that the involvement of the family in arranging a marriage was generally considerable, but it varied. How far the parents were involved in the choice of the bride or groom depended on for example the social status, the traditions in the area, as well on the age of the

children. They say that sometimes the family could chose the partner to finance the new household. But there were also situations in which the new couple only needed a blessing of the family. Furthermore, it was expected that aristosratic children would submit to the marriages their parents arranged for them, happy to comply with their parents wishes. Some marriages were arranged when the children were still very young, but this kind of marriage was also socially accepted in Renaissance time. (see Sokol, 2003, p.30) Levin says that “such marriages were heavily influenced by considerations of fortune – by the desire, that is, to effect ‘the economic or social or political consolidation or aggrandizement of the family.’” Here he quotes Lawrence Stone. (Levin, 1985, p.24)

These facts show that a marriage in Renaissance time was also an event which was very important for the whole family and not only for the couple that married. The whole future of the family could rely on that marriage. For that reason “even among poorer families, family design and economic structures dictated marriage partners. Those with a only a small patch of land made the best arrangements they could for their children.” (King, 1991, p.35)

The consequence of this marriage behaviour was, that most couples did not marry for love, but for social reasons. Levin quotes in this case the player King, which maintains that “fortune dominates all relationships, between husband and wife []” (Levin, 1985, p.23)

The role of the wife in a marriage gets very clear in the text by Margaret L. King. She describes the function as following: “The wife who had married, willing or unwilling, had to develop a relationship with her husband negotiated between contradictory injunctions. On the one hand, she was expected to be a companion to her husband, but on the other, she was his subordinate and the object of restrictive regulations imposed by him and other male authorities.” (King, 1991, p.35) In the following paragraph she says that “Marriage was to be a state of ‘unanimity’” (King, 1991, p.35), which might have meant in most cases, that the wife had to do what her husband told her. She also states that “A couple might love, but the husband was in charge.” (King, 1991, p.38) This shows that the role of love in a marriage was rather small. But King can explain what love meant to be in a marriage: “conjugal love is ‘a pattern of perfect friendship’” (King, 1991, p.35)

explain this we can focus on another statement of Levin. He says that “a substantial conflict no doubt existed between life and romatic literature, which, true to medieval courtly traditions, idealized love over all mundane interests.” Levin, 1985, p.24) This corresponds to the statement of Margaret

L. King. She explains that literature in the Elizabethan age should present the “imagery of happy conjugal union” (King, 1991, p.38) which is to say marriage. Further more she says that “the ideal of mutual love and support enjoined by the writers of books could be found to flourish in real marriages.” (King, 1991, p.37) So the books and within that also the plays had an exemplary function.

Charlton has a similar opinion. He says about the Elizabethans that to them “to live was to love, and to love was to love romatically. That was for them a fact of existence.” (Charlton, 1979, p.108) About the Shakespearean theatre and the romatic age he writes that to the Elizabethans “a lover and his lass or a lord and his lady were the most engrossing of God’s creatures.” (Charlton, 1979, p.20)

Finally we can say, that the real love life in the Renaissance and the love that is presented in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” are a great contrast. On the one hand we have the arranged marriages and the engagements because of social reasons, in which the love has to grow after the marriage. On the other hand we have those couples in the Shakespearean comedies that are deeply in love with each other, can not stand a day without seeing each other and are willing to give up everything just to be together with the one beloved. So we can take the Shakespearean comedies as a kind of good example and something the Renaissance couples should orientate on. The romaticism shown in the play is something that many couples married in the Renaissance time will never have known, so they might only have dreamt of.

So I can end up this paper with the words of H.B. Charlton: “What is a fantasia like ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ but the very ecstasy of romaticism?” (Charlton, 1979, p.19)


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Love and Marriage in "A Midsummer Night's Dream"
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