A Midsummer Night’s Dream Essay
“The course of true love never did run smooth.” Discuss how Act 1 scene 1 of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ mirrors this comment of Lysanders’; hinting at the possibility of a tragic outcome, though the situation is ultimately resolved happily.
In what ways might the response of a modern audience to this scene differ from that of an Elizabethan audience?
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the epic play depicting the tangled emotions of love, and the tale of a destructive love triangle between Athenian lovers.
Act 1 Scene 1 begins with Theseus, duke of Athens and his bride-to-be Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, making preparations for their forthcoming marriage.
Theseus and Hippolyta are undoubtedly wholly in love, as they exchange romantic words as they discuss their wedding plans. Theseus says “Now, fair Hippolyta, our nuptial hour draws on apace: four happy days bring in another moon.” And Hippolyta replies “Four days will quickly steep themselves in night; four nights will quickly dream away the time; and then the moon, like to a silver bow, new bent in heaven, shall behold the night of our solemnities.”
However, underlying the glossy visage of these two lovers, we can see that their love had not always been whole, as Theseus tells us of their past, “Hippolyta, I wooed thee with my sword, and won thy love doing thee injuries;” This shows that their course of true love did not always run smooth, as they had previously been at war with one another, and Theseus had defeated Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, in battle. Theseus then goes on to tell how their situation has changed, as their former hatred has turned into love and they have fallen for each other, saying “But I will wed thee in another key, with pomp, with triumph, and with revelling.” This shows the lover’s delight in their approaching wedding, and they shall, in contrast to the emotions of war, rejoice together in celebration.
Whilst Theseus and Hippolyta exchange romantic words, they are interrupted by Egeus, an Athenian lord who is determined to make his daughter Hermia marry Demetrius. However, Hermia is in love with Lysander, who is deemed by her father as unworthy to marry. It is with this predicament that Egeus consults Theseus, as it is the traditional law of Athens that he wishes to invoke, which will force Hermia to marry whom her Father chooses, Demetrius, or face death for disobedience, or a life of chastity as a nun.
All protests made by Hermia and Lysander are futile, as Egeus complains to Theseus that Lysander has only won Hermia’s affections by bewitching her, “This man hath bewitched the bosom of my child; Thou, thou Lysander, thou hast given her rhymes, and interchanged love tokens with my child.” Yet Lysander replies in saying that he comes from just as good a family as Demetrius, if not better, is as wealthy, and also has the huge advantage that he is in love with Hermia, and Hermia is in love with him. Lysander says “You have her father’s love, Demetrius: let me have Hermia’s; do you marry him.”
The two young men continue to argue why they should each be allowed to marry Hermia, signifying how small things can easily disrupt the course of true love, which, in this case, is prohibiting the potential loving marriage of Lysander and Hermia.
The man in the way of the couple’s true love, Demetrius, is shown to have not such an unblemished character, after Lysander tells us of how “Demetrius… made love to Nedar’s daughter, Helena, and won her soul; and she, sweet lady, dotes, devoutly dotes, dotes in idolatry, upon this spotted and inconsistent man.” The way Lysander repeats how Helena “dotes” upon Demetrius, shows of her rather obsessive idolisation of him. This hints that Helena might feels a strong rivalry with Hermia in trying to gain the affections of Demetrius, which, without any encouragement from Hermia herself, his attentions are so fixed upon her. This may suggest to the audience that a bitter story on behalf of Helena’s jealousy is about to unfold, also hinting that Demetrius is a sinful and changeable man, who could cause havoc between the lovers and adds to the underlying feeling that this feud will result in a tragic outcome.
Hermia exclaims desperately how “I would my father looked but with my eyes,” saying that she wished that her father could see Lysander for who he really is, and respect the fact that they are in love. Theseus sternly confirms that Hermia will have to choose Demetrius or death as she must abide by the laws of Athens, and tells her to, instead of looking through her own eyes, “Rather your eyes must with his judgement look.” This mirrors how the course of love is not running smoothly, and even more significantly, true love is being ignored for perhaps what could be called infatuation with Hermia in Demetrius.
I think this reply to Hermia’s plea would have caused very significant differences between the reactions of a modern day audience to an Elizabethan audience.
In modern society, freedom of speech and thought is allowed and the right of Fathers over their daughters is limited. It is socially acceptable and is seen as a woman’s right to be free to choose whom to marry. The very concept of being forced to marry someone you did not love, simply because your father preferred another to the man you love, would be seen as ludicrous. A contemporary audience would be in disbelief that Hermia might face death as she refuses to do as her father says, and may well be disgusted, as well as sympathetic with Hermia’s unfair and unjust situation. A modern day director may put great emphasis on Hippolyta’s reaction to her fiancï¿½s support for Egeus by showing great discontent and upset, to fit with the modern-day audience’s reaction.
An Elizabethan audience however would see this situation as very real, very normal, and easy to relate to. It would be an ordinary right for a father to choose suitable husbands for his daughters, and the decision of the father would be final, there would be no concept of opposing his choice, unless the alternative punishments were chosen. The way Theseus harshly lays down an abrupt kind of ultimatum seems to upset Hippolyta, Theseus’ fiancï¿½. This is apparent as Theseus says, “Come, my Hippolyta; what cheer, my love?” Which suggests a silent reaction or a disagreement of what Theseus has said is to be done. Throughout the play, we are reminded that perhaps Theseus is much more in love with Hippolyta, than she is with him.
Scene 1 continues as Theseus leaves to discuss the situation with Egeus and Demetrius. It is then that Lysander and Hermia are left alone to bemoan their situation. At this point Lysander tells Hermia the principle message in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, he says that from all the books he has ever read, or the stories ever told, “The course of true love never did run smooth.” The wording here cleverly prepares the audience for a dramatic play that encompasses this statement wholly, with the only smooth running of love being when the fairies intervene in the situation. However, the audience are made to ask themselves, by medicating the lovers, ultimately making Helena and Demetrius a couple, the couple’s true feelings have been doctored, so is this really the smooth running of a true love, or a fake tailored love?
Whilst Hermia and Lysander are still alone, they make a plan to elope and stay with Lysander’s aunt, in a place far from Athens, where they can be happily married without breaking the law. Hermia agrees to meet Lysander in the Wood from where they will make their escape in an affectionate passage “I swear o thee by Cupid’s strongest bow, by his best arrow with the golden head, by the simplicity of Venus’ doves, by that which knitteth souls and prospers loves…”
Helena promptly arrives, miserable that Demetrius does not return her affections or find her beautiful, but loves Hermia instead. Hermia and Lysander comfort Helena by revealing their plan to elope, and console Helena by reassuring her that this will leave Demetrius free for her to win back his attention. As the audience are aware of the resentful feelings in Helena towards Hermia, we can conclude that telling Helena of a secret elopement may not have been the best idea, and this brings a suggestion of unpredictability, what will Helena do? How desperate is she to regain Demetrius’ affections? Helena decides that, to earn Demetrius’s gratitude, she will tell him of the planned elopement.
Following on from Scene 1 Act 1, Hermia and Lysander meet in the Woods, where Oberon, King of the fairies has come to meet his queen, Titania, in anger, as she is refusing to hand over an Indian Changeling boy, who Oberon so desperately wants. The fact that the King and Queen of the fairies, however much in love they once were, they are currently quarrelling with one another and have had many conflicts and confrontations, again demonstrates Lysander’s words “The course of true love never did run smooth.” Oberon plans to put a spell on Titania so that he can take the boy from her, but when he stumbles across Helena degrading and throwing herself to Demetrius, who has no interest in her, Oberon decides to help Helena by using a potion to make Demetrius love her.
However, the plan goes wrong and the spell falls onto the wrong person, Lysander, instead of Demetrius, and makes him fall in love with Helena. Trying to correct his mistake, Oberon orders Demetrius, his initial target, to be anointed also. This results in both Demetrius and Lysander thinking they both love Helena, throwing Hermia into confusion as her lover denies his love for her.
This again mirrors Lysander’s words on the course of true love never running smooth, as the four lovers are thrown into emotional turmoil. This becomes the height of suspense as the unpredictability of the lovers’ actions elevates, and the hope that Lysander can rekindle his true love for Hermia becomes a huge focus for the audience. This is the main point in the play where it seems like there is no happy resolution and that a tragic ending is imminent.
As the tale progresses, Lysander’s spell is lifted and the two couples awake to find themselves with a partner who, in Hermia and Lysander’s case, are wholly involved in a rich, true love, and for Helena and Demetrius, a tailored love under the spell of Oberon. Even though the situation is happily resolved, the underlying message that “the course of true love never did run smooth” is still apparent. The course of true love for Lysander and Hermia is made official when, on the formation of two couples, Theseus announces an overruling of Egeus’ plans, so that both couples can be happily wed.
Also supporting the theme of tangled love-triangles and the mishaps that occur within the foundations of true love, the mortal men that are to perform a play at the Duke Theseus’ wedding have decided upon a tragic love story.
Throughout the play, and importantly the specific quotes and happenings of Act 1 Scene 1, we are continuously suggested that a tragic ending is to come, which captures the hearts of the audience and uses the audience’s emotions to bring a sense of sympathy and compassion to the twisting storyline. The play conclusively ends with the marriage of Theseus and Hippolyta, along with the marriage of Lysander and Hermia, and Helena and Demetrius, and with Oberon and Titania overcoming their ongoing conflicts.
However, whether it is true to call the love between Demetrius and Helena ‘true’ may perhaps be the continuous symbol that is, love can run smoothly, but true love with no outside influences, is destined to be a long, confusing journey, that never did run smoothly.