A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Towards the end of the play, as the Athenian nobles prepare for the mechanicals’ performance, Theseus remarks, “How shall we find the concord of this discord? ” This question relates to the whole play; the discords of Oberon and Titania and the lovers having been resolved into concord. The following mechanicals’ play of ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ offers a new set of incongruous conjunctions reflecting – as in a distorting mirror – aspects of the earlier discords.
In this play the apparently anarchic tendencies of the young lovers, of the mechanicals-as-actors, and of Puck are restrained by the “sharp Athenian law” and the law of the Palace Wood, by Theseus, Oberon, and their respective consorts. This tension within the world of the play is matched in its construction; in performance it can at times seem riotous and out of control, and yet the structure of the play shows a clear interest in symmetry and patterning.
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My intention is to examine Shakespeare’s concords and discords in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Shakespeare’s use of these musical terms, concordance and discordance, puts in mind a famous quote of his: “If music be the food of love, play on,” This was written soon after AMSND, around 1600, and the idea of music being the sustaining and rejuvenating factor of love is clearly present in AMSND. In act 4 scene 1, following the concordance of the lovers, the removal of Bottom’s “transformed scalp” and the “release [of] the Fairy Queen”, Oberon and Titania sing and dance to mark that they “are new in amity”.
Music is used here to symbolise the return to harmony in theirs and the Athenian’s relationships. Music is simply ordered sound, it is the harmony that humans have found in nature. So, if human order within nature “be the food of love”, it would stand to reason (at least within the world of Mr. Shakespeare) that the Palace Wood of the fairies, as a personified order system within nature, is fundamentally connected with love and music. And this appears to be so, as the fairies, though only “shadows”, are in control of the mortals’ love in the play.
The existence of fairies was a popularly held belief at the time of AMSN; they are a large part of folklore and with the growth of Puritanism in England they were believed by some to be “devils entirely”. Fairies were generally found in homes and farms and it was believed that they rewarded good and tidy people and severely punished others. Dealing with fairies was in some cases considered a form of witchcraft and was punished as such. However, Shakespeare’s portrayal of fairies is peaceful and lyrical – they are those who “hang a pearl in every cowslip’s ear” and are merely “shadows” that are “No more yielding but a dream”.
Shakespeare uses the public superstition of humanlike rationality in the unfathomable as a metaphor for nature and nature’s processes. This completely contradicts the Elizabethan conception of fairies, and is therefore disorderly in terms of public thought. But such was the popularity of Shakespeare that his literary contemporaries perpetuated his descriptions of fairies given in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Thus changing the popular belief of fairies from wicked spirits to shadows and dreams, a transformation which lasts to this day. Puck (a. k. Robin Goodfellow) is the medium through which the fairy and human worlds interact, he is introduced as a “shrewd and knavish sprite”, and he is known to “fright the maidens” and “Mislead night wanderers, laughing at their harm”.
He is a “jest[er] to Oberon” and a general creator of chaos. Throughout the play; he mistakes Lysander for Demetrius “by the Athenian garments he hath on”, and he transforms Bottom’s head into that of an ass. When he is faced with the resulting bedlam he is “glad it so did sort, as this their jangling [he] esteem[s] a sport. For these reasons it would seem as though Puck embodies anarchy and does only as he pleases, but, as well as bringing chaos Puck restores order. When he is charged with a serious duty he is obedient (“I go, I go, look how I go”) and it is he that is “sent with broom before, to sweep the dust from behind the door” at the end of act 5. Puck is the catalyst for disorder, but he is also the caretaker of order. Puck 3. 2. 459 Every man should take his own, In your waking shall be shown: Jack shall have Jill; Nought shall go ill;
The man shall have his mare again, and all shall be well. This passage shows that Puck lives up to his name “Goodfellow”, he is clearly a friend of the people and he knows what is to be done to “restore amends” of the young lovers’ confused relations. The line “Every man should take his own” is in keeping with the Tudor laws “A woman’s body and her goods became her husband’s property when she married and the law allowed him to do whatever he wanted with them. ” Order would therefore be restored to a level familiar with the sexual edict of Tudor England.
However, the Palace Wood isn’t entirely compliant with these social laws, the introduction of Oberon and Titania, King and Queen of the fairy kingdom, shows the troubles of their relationship. When Oberon and Titania enter the scene, they do so separately from opposing doors; this creates an air of division and hostility between the pair. Their entrance is also marked by a change from rhyming couplets to blank verse: further accentuating the tension between them and giving the impression that they are incompatible as a ‘couplet’.
Oberon greets Titania with the words “ill met by moonlight”, to which she replies that she has “forsworn his bed and company”. It would have been unseemly for a wife to answer her husband in this way, which can be gauged from Oberon’s reply “wanton! Am not I thy Lord? ” It comes to light that they are arguing over the fate of a “little changeling boy”. The boy was left to Titania “by a votress of my [her] order” and she wants to raise him herself, but Oberon would like him to be his “henchman”.
You could argue that the fairy kingdom is a metaphor for nature, by that logic a disagreement between the rulers, the “king of shadows” and the “fairy queen”, would cause vast repercussions in the natural world. “This same progeny of evils comes From our debate, from our dissension ; We are their parents and original. ” The “progeny of evils” covers most human centric misfortunes, from “rheumatic diseases”, “floods” and “contagious fogs” to destroying the year’s harvest and depriving “human mortals” of “their winter cheer”. These ideas tie in with the superstitions of the era.
Because the scientific understanding of the world had so many gaps, superstition was used to impose sentient minds on the unexplainable and the seemingly unfair. Thus: fairies, deities, sprites, demons. Gods, goblins… (the list is endless) arose. Such is the egotistical nature of humankind that any process that appears irrational, but affects man, must be explained in terms of man. Therefore, even though the idea of a fairy having “brawls” that “disturb’d our [their] sport” of managing nature is a completely new one, it is befitting to the superstitions of that era.
Also, the fact that Shakespeare equates love – an irrational and consuming emotion – with the decisions of fairies would have been appeasing to popular superstitions, i. e. it wouldn’t strike a discord with the audience. The conclusion of Oberon and Titania’s row is that, Titania wouldn’t give him the changeling boy, not even for his entire “fairy kingdom”. A wife disobeying her husband in the 16th century presents a clear social disorder; as “Woman in her greatest perfection was made to serve and obey man” .
The Tudor concept of marriage fits into what they believed was the divine order: God ruled the universe, the King ruled the country, and a husband ruled his family . This disobedience of Titania’s displeases the social order and for that she must be punished, as Oberon says “thou shalt not from this grove till I torment thee for this injury. ” By a contrast to the “dissension” of Oberon and Titania’s marriage, Theseus and Hippolyta represent the ideal Elizabethan order. He is the ruler of Athens, an apparently ordered society, and Hippolyta is subservient and never disputes his rule.
The typical role of a man in a relationship is that of wooer, and he follows this, he reminds Hippolyta that he “woo’d [her] with [his] sword”. Theseus is also a noble and good willed character. In the opening scene, he is clearly trying to calm heated passions and buy time for Hermia. In act 4 scene 1, he does not know how or why the four lovers are “fortunately met”, but he acts decisively in over-bearing Egeus’ will, and compensates him for any loss of face with the honour of a joint wedding ceremony.
In act 5, we see how his own great happiness makes the Duke more, not less, eager to promote the happiness of the young lovers (“Joy, gentle friends, joy and fresh days of love/ Accompany your hearts”) and to show considerate approval of the efforts of the amateur performers of Pyramus and Thisbe. By this I can conclude that as well as being a powerful image of order – that is backed by the “sharp” Athenian law- Theseus plays a slight role within the story of keeping peace and concordance.
However, not all of the “mortal human” interactions follow the correct social order, for example Helena and Demetrius’ sexual roles are reversed when she follows him doggedly into the wood (act 2 scene 1). Helena is in love with Demetrius but he is “sick when [he] do[es] look on” her, she surrenders herself entirely as his “spaniel” “to be used as [he] use[s] [his] dog. ” This is a frank expression of her loyalty and desperation, she goes on to note this incorrect role as a “scandal on [her] sex”, as women “were not made to woo. Furthermore, Shakespeare uses imagery of ancient Greek mythology and nature to express this role reversal: “Apollo flies, and Daphne holds the chase; the dove pursues the griffin. ” This turning of the tables of popular cultural focal points is a very effective representation of disorder. Helena’s behaviour here contradicts that in the court, though in Athens she speaks of “cupid painted blind” and her regret that Demetrius looks on “Hermia’s eyne”, she seems composed. However, her temperament becomes animalistic when she enters the woods.
This idea that the woods influence the characters, removing their social inhibitions resurfaces throughout the play, most notably in act 3 scene 2, where Puck’s mistake causes the young loves to row. Wherein, Lysander and Demetrius dote on Helena in the woods and she cries that they “are all bent to set against” her for their “merriment. ” Helena’s unabated pursual of Demetrius, and the fickle devotions of both men (who are quick to make allegations “of whom [they] do love, and will do until [their] death”) raises the question ‘is love rational? ’
This is a key otif of the play, and you could argue that Shakespeare believes that love is irrational. By instating mythical beings as the controllers of love, he is presenting love as worthy of superstition, and as I theorised earlier, superstition arises to explain irrational things that affect humans. However, contradicting opinions of love are put forward by different characters; the notion that love is an irrational force is first introduced in act 1 scene 1 by Theseus. It is said that he “wooed” Hippolyta with his “sword” and “won [her] love doing [her] injuries”.
No explanation is given for their abrupt change from hostility to love, and this foreshadows the movement from discord to harmony in the story. A more rational view of love is given by Egeus; he invokes “the ancient privilege of Athens” that Hermia, as his daughter, is his property. Moreover, that he may “dispose of her” to either Demetrius “or to her death. ” This ownership status would be a socially acceptable role of a father in 16th century England, but the spontaneous opinions of the young lovers, to contradict “the law of Athens” shows a clear disorder.
Finally, Shakespeare’s most unhinging method of toying with disorder is the difference between what is and what seems. Reality appears belittled by: the confusion of sexual identity, the casual social rule breaking (of Bottom in Titania’s arms and the “hempen homespun” mechanicals acting for the nobles), the ridiculous unmentioned parallels between the play Pyramus and Thisbe and the lovers and most elusively, the suggestion that the play is merely a “weak and idle theme no more yielding than a dream. ”