Goodreads: A Midsummer Night’s Dream
When Hermia is threated with death if she refuses to marry the man her father has chosen, she attempts to elope with her true love, Lysander. But when the two enter the woods near Athens, they have no idea they will be pursued by their friends and tracked by fairies. With magic mixing up who is in love with whom, it begins to seem as though they will never get their happy ending.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is arguably one of Shakespeare’s “simpler” works. It’s short, and it’s a comedy, so it doesn’t deal with a lot of the weighty issues of death, madness, authority, and the meaning of life that come up in plays like Hamlet and King Lear. And while there are two main plot lines that run parallel to each other, neither is particularly convoluted and they don’t extensively interact (in terms of character overlap; they do interact thematically). Indeed, many adaptations of A Midsummer Night’s Dream simply cut out the Oberon/Titania storyline, without any obvious loss to the Hermia/Lysander/Helena/Demetrius storyline. Many adaptations also cut out Act V entirely, since all the love stories are resolved by the end of Act IV, and the audience is only left watching a play-within-the-play.
All this cutting can raise a lot of questions. Is A Midsummer Night’s Dream any “good?” Is half the play just filler, if everyone’s so happy to get rid of half the action? Is the romance between Hermia and Lysander the only thing worth caring about? Personally, I think that A Midsummer Night’s Dream is good, and though getting the happy ending and wedding from Shakespeare is always both fun and satisfying, there are some important themes and considerations that the play raises, as well.
The play opens with Hermia being given a choice by her father and the Duke of Athens: She can choose to marry Demetrius, the man her father wishes her to wed, or she can choose to die (or maybe a living forever celibate in a convent if everyone’s feeling merciful). Marrying the man she loves, Lysander, is not an option. The audience is thus immediately confronted with the question: is this fair? On one level, it is tempting to brush the issue aside and say, “That’s how the world used to work.” Yet the play really invites the audience to think about the motivations behind the law, who benefits from it, and whether there couldn’t be other choices.
Hermia’s entrapment is contrasted exquisitely by the situation of the fairy monarchs Oberon and Titania. They appear to have all the freedom in romantic relationships they could want; they apparently like each other, and they have dalliances on the side. So the audience must again think about love: Do they value monogamy? Do outside flirtations help or hinder a relationship? Is having freedom to choose your lover good, or does more structure stop adultery? Oberon and Titania may not give a lot of answers—they’re clearly not to function too closely to the way the majority of humans would—but they offer interesting alternatives.
The other characters similarly raise more and more questions about love. Helena has to deal first with unrequited love, and then the question of what happens when you try to force someone to love you. An unsuspecting weaver, Bottom, gets caught up in Oberon and Titania’s relationship, and while he doesn’t appear to be lucid enough to give his own situation too great thought, the audience certainly can. Finally, the audience is also treated to a love story in the play-within-the-play. While I have never been a fan of plays-within-plays (or framing devices, or flashbacks, or anything I perceive as taking me out of the “main action” of a literary work), I imagine other people will find relating this to the two main plots quite interesting.
Altogether A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a tightly woven plot. It is fun and full of love, magic, and a bit of humor, but it also raises some great question about the nature of love and romantic relationships.