All’s Fair in Love and War?

In many ways, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a typical Shakespearean comedy. It has the young star-crossed lovers kept apart by overbearing family,the jealous, spurned lover, the comedic subplot of the rude mechanicals, and finally the happy, “all’s well that ends well” ending that wraps up all loose ends and leaves all the main characters content. However, in reading this play for the second or third time for this class, one aspect of the ending stuck out to me. At the end of the third act, when Puck is reapplying the “love-in-idleness” potion to correct the previous chaos, he resets all the characters to their original state, except for Demetrius. All of the characters get to have what they had originally wanted, except for Demetrius, who is now bewitched to love a women he had previously despised. At first this struck me as remarkably unjust, but then I analyzed it within the context of the play. 

A major theme of the play is the folly of love, a sentiment captured by Puck in his exclamation “Lord, what fools these mortals be!” (III.ii.115). The main plot of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is driven by the emotional turmoil of the young Athenians trapped in their asymmetrical love triangle. What should be a simple problem, two young men and two young women that need to be married, is made intractable because of their own fleeting feelings. For example, by all accounts, Demetrius and Lysander are more or less equal in terms of social standing, and thus it seems arbitrary that Hermia prefer Lysander, and her father Demetrius. The play highlights this absurdity through the intervention of the fairies with the love potion. However, Helena’s lamentation of “winged Cupid painted blind” (I.i.241) is proved prophetic when Puck mistakes Lysander for Demetrius, and again when he anoints Demetrius to correct the previous mistake, which only serves to invert the asymetrical love triangle, not correct it. There is also absurdity in hearing Lysander and Demetrius declare their love for Helena in the same manner they had previously declared for Hermia, again illustrating the folly of their affections. At the end of the third act when Puck corrects what he has done, the exact pairings seem arbitrary. Puck could have just as easily made Lysander love Helena and and Demetrius Hermia, and all the characters would have been just as content with the pairings, especially Hermia’s father. However, to understand why Shakespeare ended the play as he did, one needs to examine another theme of the play.

Without a doubt, love and marriage by coercion is a dark undertone present throughout A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Whether by Theseus, who “wooed [Hippolyta] by [his] sword” (I.i.17), or Egeus condemning his daughter Hermia “to this gentleman [Demetrius]/Or to her death” (I.i.43-44), or by the magical influence of the fairies, a theme throughout the play is the lack of choice involved in love and marriage. The previous sympathy I had had for Demetrius, for being compelled to love a woman he detested, dissolved when I remembered that Demetrius himself was willing to do the same to Hermia, to force her to marry him against her will. Demetrius’s position is actually better than Hermia’s would have been, as he at least loves Helena now, regardless of whether it is a potion making it so. In this way the resolution of the play is ironic, as it is Demetrius, the man, who is forced into a marriage against his will. In these ways A Midsummer Night’s Dream  is a comedic play that analyzes and subverts popular conceptions of the nature of love and marriage.

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3 thoughts on “All’s Fair in Love and War?

  1. Karen Barba

    I think its possible that Shakespeare may have ended the play the way he did in order to show that not all stories get the happy ending they want but rather the one they need. The characters don’t need to have the perfect ending because human life is not perfect.

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  2. michaeldrago

    This is a pretty thorough analysis of the rather absurd twists and turns that the various relationships go through over the course of the play. As you say, the ending is pretty difficult to take when interpreted at face value (both for Demetrius being forced to love Helena and for Helena to so willingly accept the love of a man who was unnecessarily cruel to her earlier), but it makes more sense when we consider the foolish actions of the lovers throughout the narrative.

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  3. Margaret Hack

    I hadn’t thought of Demetrius’s situation as a get-what-you-(would)-give type of experience, but I think you are absolutely correct. He does get what he deserves, and I suppose it is arguable that Helena really doesn’t mind (remembering that she was happy being treated like a dog). If Helena’s personality is content with Demetrius’s “new-found” love for her, Shakespeare’s audience can be content with the ending as well. It’s interesting that both of the female’s ended up marrying the men they originally wanted to, instead of subverting female power as was typical of the time.

    Reply

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