3. Platonic Love
3.1 Egeus - Hermia
3.2 Hermia - Helena
4. Romantic Love
4.1 Lysander - Hermia
4.2 Helena - Demetrius
5. Love out of Balance
5.1 Oberon - Titania
5.2 Bottom - Titania
“A feature peculiar to Shakespeare is the suddenness of love. There is mutual fascination and infatuation from the very first glance, the first touch of hands. Love falls down like a hawk; the world has ceased to exist; the lovers see only each other. Love in Shakespeare fills the entire being with rapture and desire.” – Jan Kott1
For many centuries, Shakespeare’s plays have drawn spectators from all over the world into theatres. Be it “Romeo and Juliet”, “Macbeth” or “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, one of his plays is always performed in a theatre nearby. The playwright’s diverse writing style, full of metaphors, puns and imagery, offers room for a variety of interpretations and is the reason for many different theatre productions. Whereas Jan Kott, a Polish drama critic and professor of literature, insists on violence and unrepressed animalistic sexuality2 in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, the modern adaption by Casey Wilder Mott rather focuses on the “inherent chaotic spirit of love”.3 Love as the central theme of the play is presented by the relationships between Shakespeare's characters. They all have a different perception of love.
This essay is about the variations of love in "A Midsummer Night's Dream", for no relationship is like any other. The following will examine the different kinds of love between the protagonists of the play with philosophical approaches to a definition of love.
After giving a synopsis, the topic of platonic love will be contemplated in regards of parental and sisterly love. The second chapter will deal with the romantic love of the four Athenian lovers. Finally, the motif of love out of balance will be analysed in detail with an emphasis on the fairy world.
In Shakespeare’s play “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, Hermia does not have her father’s consent to marry Lysander. He wants her married to Demetrius instead, who broke up with Helena. Therefore, Hermia and Lysander plan to escape and meet in the woods, but are followed by Demetrius and Helena.
Simultaneously, the fairy lord Oberon and his queen Titania are in the forest, quarrelling about an Indian boy. To carry his point, Oberon orders his servant Puck to fetch a flower whose dew makes one fall madly in love with the next seen creature. He shall enchant Titania with it and Demetrius too, for he mistreats and insults the enamoured Helena. Titania is woken by Nick Bottom, whose head was conjured into a donkey’s, and declares her love for him.
Meanwhile, Puck has confused Lysander with Demetrius, breaking Lysander’s loyalty to Hermia and making him fall for Helena. Aware of the mistake, Puck charms Demetrius who becomes Lysander’s rival. Hermia starts to fight with her best friend Helena because it seems like she stole Lysander’s heart. Before the four harm each other, Puck lifts the charm of the flower. They are found by Theseus who allows Lysander and Hermia and Demetrius and Helena to marry alongside him.
Titania awakes without the charm too and reconciles with Oberon, who succeeded in convincing the dazed fairy to hand over the Indian boy. The play of Pyramus and Thisbe in front of the newlyweds closes the comedy.
3. Platonic Love
Love is an abstract noun, making it difficult to grasp and define in one sentence. Everybody has a slightly different understanding of the term which probably motivates philosophers from all over the world to formulate their own opinion on the subject. Here the love concept of Plato and his student Aristoteles will be focused on.
Love in the Greek terms can be divided into agape, eros and philia. Agape is a spiritual love towards God. Plato introduced his theory of eros as true goal of real beauty, which is nowadays considered as passionate, “erotic” love, in relation to sexual desire. Actually, Plato disdains physical or sexual contact between lovers, for it is a “degraded and wasteful form of erotic expression".4
Thus, the modern interpretation of platonic love is rather seen as philia, a fondness and appreciation of the other and resulting friendship or loyalties to family.5 This translation is in accord with Plato’s student Aristoteles’ perception. To Aristoteles, friendship is caused by uninvited acts of kindness, “done for [their] own sake and not for some other reason”.6 Time and intimacy are essential, since friendship is not possible until people appear worthy of love and mutual trust is built.7 Added to this, reciprocity is a condition of love and friendship, which must not be equal. Parental love for example can “involve a one-sided fondness”.8
Dividing platonic love into two main parts, the next section will analyse the parental love between Egeus and his daughter Hermia and the sisterly love between Hermia and her best friend Helena. The patriarchal order in marriage will be taken into account as well as the influence of romantic love.
3.1 Egeus - Hermia
In Shakespeare’s play, Egeus does not approve of his daughter’s choice of a man. She is in love with Lysander, who has won her heart with “love-tokens”, poems, songs and other gifts (cf. 1.1.28-36). But Egeus describes these well-meant acts of love as “bewitching”, “stealing”, “filching” and “turning” (1.1.27ff.) his daughter’s “obedience, which is due to [him]/ To stubborn harshness” (1.1.37ff.). By using negative verbs in conjunction with the affectionate symbols of Lysander’s love for Hermia, Shakespeare underscores Egeus' dislike of the man. With an anaphora, his antipathy for Lysander is stressed again: “This man hath my consent […] / This man [has not]” (1.1.25ff.).
To Egeus, obedience from his daughter is a proof of love. Thus, he understands Hermia’s disobedience as a breach of trust, which he blames on Lysander’s influence. He would rather see his daughter with Demetrius and is ready to let her die should she deny his order to marry him (cf. 1.1.44). The father states that Hermia is his possession and because of this he may “dispose of her” (1.1.42). This possessive love is one of Egeus’ most striking character traits.
Duke Theseus supports the resulting patriarchy and reminds Hermia, that her father “should be as a god” (1.1.47f.) to her. With the simile of God, who formed Adam and Eve from dust on the ground, Hermia is but a piece of wax to be formed or disfigured by her father’s will.
The importance of Egeus’ consent is repeated by Theseus' remark that Lysander might be a noble man but, lacking her father’s voice, Demetrius must be worthier (cf. 1.1.53ff.). Moreover, after Hermia wishes that her father could see Lysander through her eyes, Theseus argues again that she must rather look with his judgmental eyes (cf. 1.1.56ff.).
In contrast to Egeus, who gives Hermia only two simple options, Theseus offers her another in which she can abjure men by becoming a nun. The seemingly better alternative to the death penalty sheds light on his opinion of Plato's agape:
“You can endure the livery of a nun,
to be in shady cloister mewed […],
Chanting faint hymns to the cold fruitless moon. […]
But earthier happy is the rose distilled,
Than that which, withering on the virgin thorn,
Grows, lives, dies in single blessedness.” (1.1.70-78)
Theseus does not consider a life in the cloister to be a pleasant option. According to Charles Lyons, Theseus views it as unsatisfying compared to the natural fulfilment of sexual love.9 His reluctance is presented by metaphoric equations: “the rose distilled” is a person made fruitful in marriage, whereas the spiritual love of a nun must lead to death because “the undistilled rose withers ‘on the virgin thorn’” 10. With this climax, that the rose “grows, lives, dies in single blessedness”, a nun’s life in total solitude is clarified.
Egeus' parental love is rather seen towards Demetrius than Hermia. He pronounces his love for him and conveys all right of his daughter onto Demetrius. Disregarded is, that the latter has already made love to Helena. It seems implausible that Egeus would let his daughter join forces with a “spotted and inconstant man” (Lysander, 1.1.101ff.).
Shirley Garner, an English language educator, might have a justification for Egeus’ narrow-mindedness. She instances that Egeus' plan could be that Hermia should have a husband with whom she is not in love. Then she would be unhappily married and subsequently depend more on her father, always love him and stay with him.11 Added to this, she ponders whether Egeus’ affection towards Demetrius is of a homoerotic nature12, for the arranged marriage would also “bind” Demetrius to him. Even after Demetrius has fallen in love with Helena, Egeus tries to pull him back, “realigning the original we against them” 13:
“They would have stolen away; they would, Demetrius,
Thereby to have defeated you and me,
You of your wife and me of my consent,
Of my consent that she should be your wife.” (4.1.155-58)
Garner’s thesis that Egeus wants to keep his daughter close is proven by his hate towards Lysander. The possessive father fears to lose his submissive child. He sees Demetrius and Theseus as his only allies in order to maintain possession of Hermia and thus orders his daughter to marry Demetrius. He is the better alternative to Lysander, who is the reason for Hermia’s stubbornness. Therefore, I think his relation to Demetrius is not homoerotic but simply profit-oriented. In the end, his plan does not have the desired results because his “allies” let him down: Theseus allows Hermia to marry Lysander and Demetrius falls in love with Helena. The furious outbreak is his last try to win their support back but he is ignored.
Overall, the patriarchal order executed by her father and the Athenian law (represented through duke Theseus) subdue Hermia’s choice in marriage. Her only options are to marry a person she does not love, to abjure men in exchange for a nun’s spiritual love or to die. Helena would describe the powerlessness women have compared to men as follows:
“We cannot fight for love, as men may do;
We should be wooed, and were not made to woo” (2.1.241-42).
3.2 Hermia - Helena
Hermia and Helena have been best friends for a long time. The two always meet in the woods to talk, pour out their hearts, share their deepest secrets and counsel each other (cf. 1.1.214ff.). Therefore, the love they share is sisterly (cf. 3.2.199). This closeness is shown by Helena’s use of the repetition “one”, putting emphasis on the union they built (“created both one flower”, “sitting on one cushion”, “two seeming bodies, but one heart” (3.2.204ff.)). Additionally, Helena uses a comparison to a cherry to describe her friendship with Hermia:
But yet an union in partition,
Two lovely berries moulded on one stem” (3.2.209-211).
The imagery of nature was deliberately chosen to show that two separate cherries becoming one through the cherry stem is only natural. The effect of it is that the two are indeed of “one heart and one mind”, thus inseparable. Shakespeare might have even called the two best friends “Hermia” and “Helena” because their names sound similar. In addition, the girls differ only in height and in the colour of their hair. Once again, the close connection between them is shown due to the analogy of sisters looking and sounding very much alike.
Being with a person one loves, one feels content in the moment and does not want the time together to end. The two best friends used to “chid the hasty-footed time/ For parting [them]” (3.2.200f.). The metaphor highlights that time runs quickly when one is having fun, for joking with a very dear friend is exciting and leads to a false estimation of passed time.
Helena’s love towards Hermia is shown in her devotion, trust and loyalty. She would give everything to Hermia:
“Were the world mine, Demetrius being bated,
The rest I’d give to be to you translated.” (1.1.190-191.).
The only person holding greater value for her than her best friend is Demetrius, whom she is madly in love with. She cannot keep secret Lysander and Hermia’s plan to flee (cf. 1.1.217 ff.) and betrays it to Demetrius in the hope of gratitude (cf. 1.1.246ff.) and as an excuse to talk to him. Hence, her friendship with Hermia is less important than her love for Demetrius, who does not even reciprocate her feelings. But the familiar expression “love makes blind” states that rational thoughts are a rarity among people in love.
Hermia is a victim of the mentioned blindness as well. She accuses Helena of stealing Lysander's heart by night (cf. 3.2.283f.), even though she should be aware of Helena’s unconditional love towards Demetrius. Their confusion and hurt is vast and lets them doubt the truth behind the others' innocence. Both Hermia and Helena have denied being a part of the confederacy (cf. 3.2.192) or stealing Lysander’s heart. The lack of trust and loyalty due to love’s blindness endangers their friendship. They insult each other (“juggler” (3.2.282), “counterfeit” (3.2.288) and “little” (3.2.325)) and are about to fight too (3.2.298). A conciliation is only possible after the spell is lifted, when the two are reunited with their loved ones.
To sum up, the love between Hermia and Helena is sisterly. They spend a lot of days together in the woods counselling one another and sharing secrets. But trust and loyalty to their best friend comes second, should romantic love interfere.
1 Jan Kott: "Titania and the Ass's Head". In: Dorothea Kehler (ed.). A Midsummer Night's Dream: A Bibliographic Survey of the Criticism.London: Psychology Press. 1900 (reprint ed.), 111.
3 Douglas Davidson. 27.99.2018. "Modern adaptation "A Midsummer Night’s Dream” beautifully captures the inherent chaotic spirit of love." <https://elementsofmadness.com/2018/07/27/midsummer-2018/> (13.05.2019).
4 Thomas Brickhouse and Nicholas D. Smith. “Plato (427—347 B.C.E.)” <https://www.iep.utm.edu/plato/> (11.05.2019).
5 Alexander Moseley. “Philosophy of Love" <https://www.iep.utm.edu/love/> (09.05.2019).
6 Roberts, W.Rhys (trans). (1924). Rhetorica: The Works of Aristotle, Vol.11. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
7 Aristotle. Reeve, C.D.C. (trans.): Nicomachean Ethics. The New Hackett Aristotle. Hackett Publishing Company, Incorporated 2014, VIII 3.
8 Alexander Moseley. “Philosophy of Love" <https://www.iep.utm.edu/love/> (09.05.2019).
9 Lyons, Charles R. 2017. Shakespeare and the Ambiguity of Love's Triumph. Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter Mouton.p.23
10 Lyons, Charles R. 2017. Shakespeare and the Ambiguity of Love's Triumph. Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter Mouton.p.24
11 Shirley Garner: Jack shall have Jill; / Nought Shall go Ill. In: Dorothea Kehler (ed.). A Midsummer Night's Dream: A Bibliographic Survey of the Criticism.London: Psychology Press. 1900 (reprint ed.), p.134-136.
12 Garner. p. 135.
13 Garner. p. 135.