Shakespearean 'Love' in A 'Midsummer Night's Dream'

A Piece on the Importance of Fertility

A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Edwin Henry Landseer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

"A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1600)" has been called one of William Shakespeare’s greatest love plays. It has been interpreted as a romantic story in which love ultimately conquers all odds. However, A "Midsummer Night’s Dream" is actually a written piece on the importance of fertility, not love. Shakespeare’s ideas about love are represented by the powerless young lovers, by the meddling faeries and their magical love, and by forced love as opposed to chosen love. All of these points undermine the argument that this play is a typical “love story” and help build the case that Shakespeare actually intends to demonstrate the powers of sex and fertility over love.

The first idea of love is its powerlessness, represented by the “true” lovers. Lysander and Hermia are the only two characters in the play who are actually in love. Yet, their love is forbidden both by Hermia’s father and by Duke Theseus. Hermia’s father speaks of Lysander’s love as witchcraft, saying Lysander is “the man that bewitched the bosom of my child” and “with feigning voice verses of feigning love/stol’n the impression of her fantasy” (27, 31-2). These lines prove that true love is an illusion, a false ideal. 

Egeus goes on to say that Hermia belongs to him, proclaiming, “she is mine, and all my right of her/I do estate unto Demetrius” (97-98). These lines demonstrate the lack of power that Hermia and Lysander’s love holds in the presence of familial law. Furthermore, Demetrius tells Lysander to “yield thy crazéd title to my certain right,” which means that it is only to the worthiest suitor that a father must give his daughter, regardless of love (91-2).

Finally, Hermia and Lysander’s eventually wedlock is due to two things: faerie intervention and noble decree. The faeries enchant Demetrius to fall in love with Helena, therefor freeing Theseus to allow Hermia and Lysander’s union. With his words, “Egeus, I will overbear your will; / For in the temple, by and by, with us / These couples shall eternally be knit,” Theseus is proving that it is not love which is responsible for the joining of two people, but the will of those in power (178-80). Thus, even for the true lovers, it is not love which conquers, but power in the form of royal decree.

The second idea, the weakness of love, comes in the form of faerie magic. The four young lovers and the imbecilic actor are entangled in a love game, puppet-mastered by Oberon and Puck. The faerie’s meddling causes both Lysander and Demetrius, who were fighting over Hermia, to fall for Helena. Lysander’s confusion even leads him to believe he hates Hermia; he asks her,“Why seek’st thou me? Could not this make thee know / the hate I bear thee made me leave thee so?” (189-90). That his love is so easily extinguished and turned to hatred shows that even a true lover’s fire can be put out by the feeblest wind. 

Furthermore, Titania, the powerful faerie goddess, is bewitched into falling in love with Bottom, who has been given a donkey’s head by mischievous Puck. When Titania exclaims “What visions have I seen! / Methought I was enamored of an ass,” we are meant to see that love will cloud our judgment and make even the normally level-headed person do foolish things (75-76). Ultimately, Shakespeare makes the point that love cannot be trusted to withstand any length of time and that lovers are made into fools.

Finally, Shakespeare gives us two examples of choosing powerful unions, rather than amorous ones, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. First, there is the tale of Theseus and Hippolyta. In lines 16-17, Theseus says to Hippolyta, “I wooed thee with my sword / And won thy love doing thee injuries.” Thus, the first relationship that we are greeted with is the result of Theseus claiming Hippolyta after defeating her in battle. Rather than courting and loving her, Theseus has conquered and enslaved her. He creates the union for solidarity and strength between the two kingdoms. 

Next is the example of Oberon and Titania, whose separation from each other results in the world becoming barren. Titania exclaims, “The spring, the summer / The childing autumn, angry winter, change / Their wonted liveries, and the mazéd world / By their increase now knows not which is which” (111-14). These lines make it clear that it is not in consideration of love that these two must be joined, but in consideration of the fertility and health of the world. In general, then, it is not love that decides who should be joined, but the fertileness created by the union.

The sub-plots in "A Midsummer Night’s Dream" demonstrate Shakespeare’s dissatisfaction with the idea of love as a supreme power and his belief that power and fertility are the two prime factors in deciding a union. The images of greenery and nature throughout the story, as when Puck speaks of Titania and Oberon meeting neither “in grove or green / By fountain clear, or spangled starlight sheen” further suggest the importance that Shakespeare places on fertility (28-29). Also, the faerie presence within Athens at the end of the play, as sung by Oberon, suggests that lust is the enduring power and, without it, love cannot last: “Now, until the break of day / Through this house each fairy stray / To the best bride-bed will we / Which by us shall blessed be” (196-99). 

Ultimately, Shakespeare’s "A Midsummer Night’s Dream" suggests that believing only in love, creating bonds based on a fleeting notion rather than on lasting principles such as fertility (offspring) and power (security), is to be “enamored of an ass.”