Act II, Scene 2 from the Painting by Sir J Noel Paton, RSA
If we shadows have offended,
Think but this – and all is mended –
That you have but slumber’d here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend;
If you pardon, we will mend.
And, as I’m an honest Puck,
If we have unearned luck
Now to ‘scape the serpent’s tongue,
We will make amends ere long;
Else the Puck a liar call:
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.
As a comedy, this play embellishes Love as its overarching theme. One notices how love effects each character differently throughout the course of the play and yet we understand it as an autonomous essence – a Cupid – something which exists absolutely of its own accord. Helena’s first monologue describes her thoughts on a personified Love. The universal experience of love binds all creatures in a common condition but fuels each individual fire to different outcomes. For some it drives them to humble indignity, others to indescribable bliss, and still others to serve the vengeful will of spite – to be wielded as a weapon of revenge! Yet in one common experience of love, whatever its form, we find ourselves unified, intertwined.
Shakespeare has a notorious sense of humor about mistakes – innocent, meaningless mistakes – which effect the fates of his characters catastrophically, leading them to their direst ends. These mistakes, such as Puck’s accidental “blessing” of Lysander’s eye, and others within Shakespeare’s works, not only serve to engage the audience, but cause one to wonder how Shakespeare himself would have behaved at a future party with nihilists and existentialists. I can only posit that he rebuked the general belief of his day that Fates and supernatural powers spun the world on their finger and jovially jerked us with their puppet strings. Perhaps he felt that these Fates possessed fallibility much like people or if the many twists in life lack the meaning men often place on them.
In any case, these mistakes lend to a much larger idea of manipulation and control within the play. Oberon and Puck use a magical elixir to bend the natural order of love to their will – much like the duke and Egeus try to bend the natural governance of love surrounding Hermia and Lysander to Egeus’ will. Before the fairies enter the play, we have a particular dynamic between our four lovers – Helena, Hermia, Demetrius and Lysander. To begin, the dynamic looks a bit like this: Helena chases Demetrius and Demetrius chases Hermia who loves Lysander. After the first application of the elixir, mistakenly applied to Lysander’s eye rather than Demetrius’, the dynamic shifts to look a bit like this: Lysander chases Helena; Helena chases Demetrius; Demetrius chases Hermia. The fairies spin the sides of the Rubix Cube only to get further from colorful harmony. The second application produces the next dynamic: Hermia chases Lysander and Lysander chases Helena who loves Demetrius.
We now have a perfect inversion of the initial dynamic. Hermia now replaces Helena in the original dynamic – pining after a man who loves another – Lysander replaces Demetrius chasing a woman who rebukes him while shunning a woman who loves him – Helena now experiences Hermia’s previous place and Demetrius Lysander’s. With this inversion we see the very inversion of love as well – into rage and pending violence. Earlier, we witnessed happiness mixed with sadness in Helena and bitterness in Demetrius. Yet it all centered around love. In this dynamic, the men seek to harm each other and Hermia wishes to attack Helena. Yet, amidst this discord, one can hope that it can serve a better purpose in causing each character to sympathize with the one who now experiences their previous position – thus, again, unifying them in one condition.
The natural has deformed into the unnatural – like producing life outside of birth. Consider how Oberon and Titania argue in their first scene about their manipulation of Theseus and Hippolyta. Titania likens it to the shifting of the very seasons.
Yet in addition to the dynamics between the characters, Shakespeare, again, adds further dimension to the play with his signature play-within-a-play. In the final acts, after Puck labels mortals as fools (Act III, Scene II), these mortals witness a play during which they call the players fools, in so many words – adding their commentary and pompous judgement much like the fairies did while entertaining themselves with the mortal’s drama in the woods! With different powers, different parts, and different lives, Shakespeare unifies all characters by exposing a singular, fundamental experience through juxtaposition in similar scenarios. The lovers share the fairies’ experience and the players’ the lovers’.
And yet! as Puck addresses the audience in his final speech, which coincidentally mirrors the Prologue of Pyramus and Thisbe, do we as the audience not see ourselves as the same dramatists in the woods or players in the play? And do we then, with our disbelief no longer suspended, not look at Master Shakespeare as the fairy king manipulating our very senses and feelings?