Shakespeare’s Romantic Genius

Upon reading the first two acts of A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the first time, I was floored by the dynamics of “romance” described by Shakespeare. Of course, there are archaic elements related directly to Shakespeare’s time such as the “law of Athens” and the will of one’s parents reigning supreme over who he or she chooses to marry—yet even the element of the “disapproving parent” remains a relevant social aspect today. There are blatantly modern aspects of romance in this particular work that echo through popular film, television programs, and literature still in the twenty-first century. Was A Midsummer Night’s Dream the birth of the first love-triangle? Was this the first Chick Flick? This play could have very well been a dramatic foreshadowing of what has now became one of the most well known plot lines ever. However, for Shakespeare’s time the idea of multiple, fickle love interests seems ground-breaking, especially for a time where everyone was expected to love exactly who his or her parents instructed them to. He’s even bold enough to add humor to the mix; when Lysander says “You have her father’s love, Demetrius; Let me have Hermia’s: do you marry him” I actually laughed out loud.

The role of women in the play also took me by surprise; Helena’s eagerness to be with Demetrius despite the fact that he wants nothing to do with her is both hilarious and still culturally relevant. Helena’s “wheat green” jealousy of Hermina (which is also quite exaggerated) is always relevant in women yet rarely addressed, even today. The fact that Helena tells Hermina of her genuine envy of her, while literally following Demetrius “like a spaniel” is a complete swap in gender roles. Helena’s manners are outspoken and perceived as masculine, even by today’s standards. Nobody wants someone following them around when it is clearly stated they are not interested. It’s a popular and humorous twist of plot, though it is almost always a man chasing after a woman instead. Also, it struck me how Helena’s monologue also acted as the possible creation of another one of today’s clichés: “Love is blind,” deriving from the lines “Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind; And therefore is wing’d Cupid painted blind.” There is contempt in Helena’s speech wherein she’s describing Hermina’s beauty: “For she hath blessed and attractive eyes. How came her eyes so bright? Not with salt tears: If so, my eyes are oftener wash’d than hers.” The pressures to appear the most beautiful are alive and well in our society. Even in Shakespeare’s time, it is recognized by a woman how little sense it makes that “love is blind” in such a shallow world, dictated by the physical appearance. In addition, Demetrius’ many infidelities are made light of by Egeus, whereas a woman’s virginity is an utmost important quality. Today, it is still often argued that a man’s sexual promiscuity is seen as common place, whereas women are slandered in daring to take on similar behaviors. The question of free will, surely, is a strong theme in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, primarily in the areas of love and sex. In today’s society I believe we wonder what it means to be free on a regular basis. It’s amazing how Shakespeare’s plays, written thousands of years ago, contain social issues that we are still in the middle of dealing with.

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2 thoughts on “Shakespeare’s Romantic Genius

  1. alexsokolinski

    I believe that the romantic part of this play is huge, but the comedy aspect of the play should not be overlooked. The ideas represented in the romantic aspects are very humorous. The lusting of women and men, and the Lysander now being in love with Helena is hilarious. I agree with your points about the roles of both men and women in this play and how they effect the all of the stereotypes of men and women, and how these ideas have changed rapidly over time.

    Reply
  2. Brian George

    I agree that the elements at the center of this play (freedom of will vs. outside pressures, dynamics of love and lust, social hierarchies, etc.) are all still present and endear Shakespeare to us today. One aspect that I like in the interplay of the fairy world and the real world is the complex folk ideas that serve to explain the things we deem outside of our control. Today we call explain outside forces with terms like “environmental pressures,” “genotype,” “phenotype,” and a host of others. There is still societal ambivalence when we speak of free will–though today the vicissitudes of nature are whisked away in a conversation on science, malingering spirits, fates, and another world that touches ours was (and in some circles today still is) the way meaning was made at the time. I am always curious about the functions that these explanations and “meaning-makings” serve to either help us understand the world, justify our behaviors (for better or worse), or delineate what parts of our experience are within our control.

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