The course of true love is not only unsmooth, it is also irrational, whimsical, and unpredictable. This truth written by William Shakespeare is on ample display in one of his most popular romantic comedies, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Theseus formulates the correlation that exists between the insanity often expressed in the actions of desire and the words of a poet during his speech near the end of the play when he observes that “The lunatic, the lover, and the poet / Are of imagination all compact” (V. i. 7-8).
The lunatic, lover and poet share the trait of achieving a state of consciousness that lifts them high over the hindrances that come with logic and allows them to glide sweetly over the chasm that will place them gently at the feet of the object of their desire. Theseus asserts that this leap of faith translate allows heaven to be transformed into hell for the lunatic, while the lover is allowed to transform the ugly into the beautiful, or hell into heaven. The poet is allowed his own special power; that of a God who can create from nothing either a heaven or hell.
The implication found in Theseus’ observation is that desire is really just a fantastic illusion stripped of its truth. Is Shakespeare asserting that desire is simply a false emotion? If so, then would not that mean that Theseus’ desire for Hippolyta is a desire that is somehow released from this bondage of fantasy? But if that is so, then how to explain how he so readily fixed his desire upon another? Shakespeare gives no facile answer to these questions. Shakespeare chooses instead to make the paradox in question here the theme of the play.
Throughout A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the unpredictability of love and desire is surveyed as the characters set forth on their respective journeys toward a love that is completely off-kilter while also maintaining a foundation of reality that belies the magic of the forest. Helena’s speech in the opening scene is the play’s most direct evidence of Shakespeare’s thematic concern: “Things base and vile, holding no quantity / Love can transpose to form and dignity./ Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind, /
And therefore is winged Cupid painted blind” (I. i. 232-235). What Helena intuits is that desire is exempt from explanation, that it is contradictory and maddeningly and, ultimately, has the single greatest influence on human actions. Distraught over the revelation that her own beloved, Demetrius, is in love with Hermia instead of her, Helena asserts that though Demetrius is incapable of seeing she is as beautiful as Hermia.
She believes that love is endowed with the authority to convert “base and vile” qualities into “form and dignity”-even ugliness and bad behavior can seem attractive to someone you love. She argues that since “love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind” that love therefore is not based on objective analysis, but subjective perception. These lines anticipate facts of the play’s assessment of love to come, including Titania’s desire for the ass-headed Bottom, which stands as the apex of the transformation of the “base and vile” into “form and dignity.”
The theme of love’s unsmooth path is portrayed through the conceit of things being off-center and out of balance throughout the multiple romantic entanglements, focusing especially on the asymmetrical relationships between the four young Athenians: Hermia loves Lysander, Lysander loves Hermia, Helena loves Demetrius, and Demetrius loves Hermia instead of Helena. The course of true love in this play is
The goal is to get back to symmetry. Even the relationship between Titania and Oberon is subject to the power of balance being lost. In this case, the off-kilter quality arises from Oberon’s coveting of Titania’s Indian boy, which she believes is greater than his love for her. Of course, Titania herself will submit to the tilted perception in her desire for Bottom. A Midsummer Night’s Dream proposes that no easy route exists that reaches the object of anyone’s desire.
This is even true when both parties on are the same path and headed toward each other. Lysander and Hermia take this route, yet eventually discover a hindrance in the form of her father’s wish that she marry another. Shakespeare is remarkably subtle at demonstrating how desire can influence the course of true love even when that desire is not carnal. In the end, Shakespeare seems to posit the idea that desire is not really in itself a false emotion, but is an illusion that often serves to make love false.