On the surface, Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream appears to be a light-hearted play. The text’s twisted plot negotiates issues of power and love in seemingly ludicrous ways. Examples that emerge from the play range from Titania’s being forced to love an ass to the confusion of four mortals: Demetrius, Helena, Hermia, and Lysander. Although the plot unfolds as a comedy, a closer examination of the characters’ actions and dialogue reveal a darker side to the play’s seemingly harmonious conclusion.
Michael Taylor, a literary scholar of the University of New Brunswick, examines the more serious underlying currents of this comedy, in his article “The Darker Purpose of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Central to Taylor’s argument is the idea that the fairies’ gaiety does not leaven the rancor of the human relationships but instead “intensifies that suggestion of a harsher and more unfestive reality which is present in the play” (Taylor 265).
One example in which the fairies’ presence highlights the gravity of humans is evident in the change, or lack-there-of, in Demetrius’ behavior upon having his eyes tainted by Puck. Before his contamination, Demetrius scorns Helena’s plea for love saying, “Tempt not too much the hatred of my spirit, / For I am sick when I do look on thee” (II.i.211-212). In this statement, Demetrius relays absolute disgust at Helena that is seemingly unwarranted. This same attitude is redirected towards Hermia after Puck puts the love potion onto Demetrius’ eyes. As such, it can be inferred that “Demetrius, undrugged, is as irrational as Demetrius drugged” (266). This dynamic then displays degree of inhumanity in the play that seems to exist in relation to love. It would appear as though Demetrius necessarily hates Helena in his love for Hermia before Puck’s intervention and then he must necessarily hate Hermia in order to love Helena after the fairies’ interference.
The way in which A Midsummer Night’s Dream cultivates this idea of love requiring hate is unusual. While it might be said that love cannot exist without hate as one provides the context/frame-of-reference for the other, it is uncommon that they be present in order to legitimize a singular relationship as they are in this play. In addition to Demetrius hating in order to love, we can see other examples of such a dynamic within the text. Lysander, for instance, most obviously parallels Demetrius’ behavior once Puck has contaminated him as he then becomes hateful of Hermia in his love for Helena. A less obvious example of this dynamic is present in Theseus and Hippolyta’s relationship. Although the two are soon to be married, a union ideally associated with love, their union appears to be more contractual than anything else. Given that Thesus captured Hippolyta, their marriage is likely to be laced with animosity. Even the fairies cannot have love for each other without hating one another. Although Oberon and Titania are together, their bickering suggests that “the violence of their quarreling is as real as the happiness of their union” ( 271).
Michael Taylor’s “The Darker Purpose of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”