Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Explore the theme of love in A Midsummer Night’s Dream

The course of true love never did run smooth.

Lysander’s declaration is one of the most quoted lines from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. While it might not be as snappy as ‘To be or not to be’, it certainly has a ring of truth to it. This truthiness (to borrow from comedian Stephen Colbert) makes it easy to ignore some of the complex issues it raises. Questions like: what is ‘true’ love anyway, and how is it different from other types of love? Why does Shakespeare use ‘never’ as opposed to the more reasonable ‘rarely’? And what do we expect the ‘course’ of love to be? In other words, how do we think love should start, proceed, and end?

In Shakespeare’s play the answers to these questions very much depend on who you ask—whether the character is male or female, child or parent, ruler or ruled. Theseus, the Duke of Athens, tells his bride-to-be Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons:

. . . I wooed thee with my sword,
And won thy love, doing thee injuries.

In Shakespeare’s time (not to mention our own) the trope of love-as-war was commonplace; hence most modern actors and directors do not draw much attention to these lines. Nonetheless, Theseus’s words hint at something that might trouble today’s audiences—that for a powerful man like the Duke, love does not start very lover-like at all but is rooted in military and imperial conquest. Indeed, legends about ‘exotic’ Amazonian tribes from the New World were quite popular in Elizabethan England.

The violence of these lines is blunted by Theseus’s follow-up statement to Hippolyta: ‘But I will wed thee in another key.’ In other words, swords and subjugation are a thing of the past, and their marriage will presumably be based on conventional expectations of a dutiful husband.

We find a similar concern with love and free will among the citizens of Athens. Egeus objects to his daughter Hermia’s wish to marry Lysander instead of his choice, Demetrius.

Egeus brings Hermia before Theseus’s court in hopes that the Duke will bend her to her father’s will. Unsurprisingly, since Theseus’s own bride was won by force, he sides with Egeus and tells Hermia she must marry Demetrius, or else become a nun and never marry at all. There is also a third option: death. For Hermia the stakes are very high indeed.

Should we expect the course of love to run smoothly if it starts with violence or coercion?

In the fairy world, the problem is not the beginning of love but its middle. Oberon and Titania, king and queen of the fairies, exhibit some of the problems that beset other married couples in Shakespeare’s plays. Titania alleges that Oberon has been roaming the world in pursuit of extra-marital dalliances, while Oberon accuses Titania of taking Duke Theseus as her lover. What is more, the couple have no qualms about airing their domestic problems in public.

Crucially for the plot of Dream, the fairies are quarreling over possession of an Indian boy. According to Puck, the child was ‘stolen from an Indian king’, while Titania suggests that his mother, ‘a votaress of my order’, died in childbirth.

We know almost nothing about the boy, and in most productions he never appears on stage. Yet he arguably lies at the heart of this play, since he embodies the contested stories we tell about origins, love, and consent.

Was he forcefully taken from his family, or was he lovingly adopted by Titania? Why does no one ask the child which ‘parent’ he prefers? And as with Theseus’s history with Hippolyta, who also comes from far away, Oberon goes to extraordinary lengths to take possession of the Indian boy.

But before we start rooting for Team Titania, it is worth keeping in mind her own penchant for controlling others. The fairy queen tells Bottom, with whom she has fallen in love:

Out of this wood do not desire to go. Thou shalt remain here, whether thou wilt or no.

Titania makes clear that she is willing to override Bottom’s will if it stands in the way of fulfilling her own desires. So does love require the freedom of choice? Can happy endings come from troubled beginnings?

One of the great things about Shakespeare is the way he challenges our expectation of what comedy or tragedy is. Just because a play is meant to be funny, it can still raise some serious issues. Dream gives us an Indian boy with no power; a young Athenian woman with very limited power; and a god-like fairy king who seems to possess all the power in the world.

Shakespeare’s play thus interrogates the extent to which love’s course is dependent upon one’s status in society, and whether the problem is less about the existence of true love than the possibility of its freedom.

Written by
Dr Will Tosh