LITR 265 –
Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall
When we think about all of the plays Shakespeare wrote, one of the biggest questions that we may end up asking is, “What is he really saying about love?” Aside from the fact that a number of the plays end with a marriage taking place, it seems to be such a different message every time. The Winter’s Tale, for example, shows love to be wronged, long-suffering and, in the end, forgiving. Othello, the Moor of Venice exemplifies a sort of love that is easily manipulated and jealous. Romeo and Juliet is the famous story of two doomed lovers, manipulated like pawns in an especially cruel game of chess.
And then, of course, there is A Midsummer Night’s Dream. With crisscrossing lovers, love triangles and just about everything going in circles, it seems more like a dream of strange geometry. This play revolves around love—but is it real or is it magic? The whole thing’s a comedy, written to inspire laughter rather than tears.
So that brings us back to a pretty big question: What is Shakespeare indeed saying about love? The Bard isn’t saying anything any longer; we can only speculate about how he really felt about it. The stories seem ever-at-odds in the different attitudes towards love—is there some way to reconcile or amalgamate them? Or is there an oft-overlooked unity? In the case of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the yarn that’s spun takes the form of an airy comedy, but it is here argued that Shakespeare had something more important to say about love… much of which is expressed in the first act, long before magic even comes into play. The biggest recurring theme that will be considered within the context of the question regarding Shakespeare’s message about love is the theme of eyes, sight and blindness. For clarity and succinctness, this will only be discussed within the context of certain, specific scenes and references from the first three acts—and only as it relates to the lovers. Once the actual references to sight are cited, they will be explained further.
Eyes, Sight and Blindness
Act 1, Scene 1
As stated, much of what the play really has to say about love can be found in Act I. Before magic even comes into the picture, we get some exploration into the problems that already exist. A woman is torn between what her heart says and what her father says.
The problem begins with Egeus, Hermia’s father, who wants his daughter to marry Demetrius. She dissents, however, saying she is in love with Lysander. The matter has since been brought to Theseus, Duke of Athens, whose opinion is to be the deciding factor.
Hermia wishes that Egeus could see Lysander from her point of view, proclaiming, “I would my father looked but with my eyes” (1.1.56). Her lament does not affect the duke, however, who replies that “Rather your eyes must with his judgment look” (1.1.57). He soon explains that according to Athenian law fathers have the final say over their daughters. These two lines also happen to be the first of many references to sight and blindness, a theme repeated throughout the story.
When all but Hermia and Lysander have left, they commiserate on their situation—Egeus, Demetrius and the law itself are all seemingly conspiring against them. Lysander says that even literary pieces and historical accounts offer no solace: “Ay me! For aught that I could ever read, / Could ever hear by tale or history, / The course of true love never did run smooth” (1.1.132-4). Although his famous complaint (in line 134) is mainly rooted in what he has read about love, it foreshadows the tribulations that are soon to follow. And certainly as noteworthy is Hermia’s line “O hell, to choose love by another’s eyes!” (1.1.140), marking another reference to the eyes. This line, in fact, will prove to be one of the most foretelling in some ways.
Hermia and Lysander agree to escape to the woods near Athens, where they will be able to escape the control of Egeus and the law. Suddenly Helena shows up, a woman who is in love with Demetrius and quite upset—Demetrius once was in love with her, but Hermia is now the one he loves. The envious Helena says to Hermia, “Your eyes are lodestars” (1.1.183) and that she would give anything “to be you translated” (1.1.193). What she means by this is that she wishes she had Hermia’s bewitching beauty, particularly her eyes, which captivate Demetrius not unlike a guiding star. But never fear, Hermia tells her friend, Lysander is the one for me and we’re running off together. Helena, the only one now left for the duration of the scene, concludes 1.1 with a monologue, the most important part being the first 20 lines:
How happy some o’er other some can be!
Through Athens I am thought as fair as she.
But what of that? Demetrius thinks not so;
He will not know what all but he do know.
And as he errs, doting on Hermia’s eyes,
So I, admiring of his qualities.
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.
Nor hath Love’s mind of any judgment taste;
Wings and no eyes figure unheedy haste.
And therefore is Love said to be a child,
Because in choice he is so oft beguiled.
As waggish boys in game themselves forswear,
So the boy Love is perjured everywhere.
For ere Demetrius looked on Hermia’s eyne,
He hailed down oaths that he was only mine;
And when this hail some heat from Hermia felt,
So he dissolved, and showers of oaths did melt.
Angrily, Helena rebukes love, calling it—among other adjectives—immature, foolish, blind, hasty and sometimes insincere. We take into consideration the fact that, having lost her lover to another woman, Helena is not seeing the world through rose-colored glasses and that her outlook on love is bound to be a bit jaded. Oddly enough, this speech of Helena’s is contrasted with her first one from moments ago—she just told Hermia that she envied her enchanting eyes—she now goes on to denounce the eyes as being blind in Cupid’s case (1.1.235) and nonexistent in the case of Love itself (1.1.237).
Helena says, in her monologue, that Demetrius ought to open his eyes and realize that she is just as attractive as Hermia. But then she realizes that she is wielding a double-edged sword: If both are equally beautiful, then Demetrius can’t be faulted for picking one woman over another on the basis of physical appearance. She says of this dilemma, “And as he errs, doting on Hermia’s eyes / So I, admiring of his qualities” (1.1.230-1); she adds that “Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind, / And therefore is winged Cupid painted blind” (1.1.234-5). She actually believes that a person’s eyes are more shrewd and insightful than the mind, which she deems not impartial enough.
Also of note is the segment of Helena’s speech in which she compares herself to Hermia. This is similar to Lysander’s earlier comparison of himself to Demetrius (1.1.99-102).
Act 2, Scene 1
The first act flows smoothly into the second one, where much of the action and magic takes place. For the most part, the subplot involving Oberon and Titania is not as significant to the aforementioned themes that are being developed. It is also of little use to try to effectively sum up the enormous tangles and triangles of love and lovers that begin showing up.
In Scene 1 of this act, the only real reference to sight comes from a brief dialogue between Demetrius and Helena: He says that “I am sick when I look on thee” and she replies that “I am sick when I look not on you” (2.1.212-3). It seems to relate to Helena’s line (at 1.1.192) where she asks Hermia to “teach me how you look,” implying both the act of looking and being looked at—two qualities of Hermia’s eyes that she wishes she had.
Act 2, Scene 2
By 2.2, Helena—having been spurned by her lover—has changed her opinion of her own appearance. In the first act, she equated herself with Hermia; now, however, she declares herself “as ugly as a bear” (2.2.100) and mournfully asks, “What wicked and dissembling glass of mine / Made me compare with Hermia’s sphery eyne” (2.2.104-5)? In truth, Helena in the first act beheld Hermia’s eyes and saw what she [Helena] wanted to be, as well as the qualities she wished she had. The other particularly noteworthy reference to eyes comes from Lysander, who wakes up immediately after Helena’s questioning of her own attractiveness. Lysander becomes in love with Helena and refers to her as “transparent Helena.” “Transparent” seems like it could be a reference to Helena’s physical appearance, or to an honesty Lysander sees in her, there is more to it than that.
Act 3, Scene 2
With Lysander making an unsuccessful attempt to woo Helena, the action switches briefly to Demetrius and Hermia—the latter suspecting that Demetrius may have killed Lysander. She says to him, “So should a murderer look, so dead, so grim” (3.2.57); is she referring to how he appears, the way in which he “looks” (stares), or both?
Whatever the case may be, however, Lysander counters Hermia’s remark with a sort of tu quoque (“you too”): “So should the murdered look, and so should I, / Pierced through the heart with your stern cruelty. / Yet you, the murderer, look as bright, as clear / As yonder Venus in her glimmering sphere” (3.2.58-61). He tells Hermia that her cold stare betrays her prettiness. Throughout the rest of the scene, there exist a few scattered references—mostly indirect—to vision and sight. Most of the scene is devoted to the climactic clash that all four confused lovers take part in, especially with Hermia and Helena’s (relatively amusing) exchange of insults. Interestingly enough, Helena’s verbal ammunition mainly consists of cracks about Hermia’s looks—features that she had complimented not long ago. (While it would be more thorough to talk about the specifics of this scene, it would not be of enough importance and would only take the topic off on a tangent.)
The Meaning Behind the Theme
Now that the main references to sight and blindness have been made, they can be examined more closely and an analytical argument can be made. So what is really going on? What seems to be a comedy turns out to have more than just that one seemingly superficial layer … if we do some reading between the lines.
The entire play, in fact, may be read differently than people might interpret it. Doesn’t it seem odd that Shakespeare, quite possibly the greatest writer of all time, would have a story in which all the conflicts are attributable to, and caused by, “obvious” factors such as patriarchs and pixies? There must be a deeper reason for things, it seems, and the repeated references to vision give a very important clue. Virtually every time sight is mentioned, it has something to do with how one character perceives another—and that makes for the biggest problems of all! It begins with Theseus and Hermia, whose thoughts regarding Lysander are at odds. When Hermia and Lysander choose to escape Athenian law, they encounter Helena—who would give anything to know how Hermia manages to catch Demetrius’ eye.
When Helena is left alone to voice her complaints about love, her first sentence illustrates one of the problems that she—and the others—suffer at some point or another. Her way of gauging happiness depends on how happy others seem in comparison, which makes for a serious problem; we might ask ourselves, “Just because others around us are happy, or attractive for that matter, why should we feel that this somehow degrades or lessens our own self-satisfaction?”
Helena also has the strange notion in her head that the eyes make for a more reliable source of judgment than the mind does. This line of reasoning is a ridiculous one in itself, and as everyone is soon to find out, the eyes give neither an accurate painting of love or reality. Of course, rational thinking pretty much goes out the window in the forest as well!
Focus primarily on Hermia and Helena in the discussion of sight and what it really means. Hermia initially is the one who is desired—not only by lovers, but also by her father and by Helena. Unfortunately for Helena, although all of Athens considers her to be as fair as Hermia, it doesn’t mean anything to her because “Demetrius thinks not so” (1.1.228). In some convoluted way, Helena thinks that telling Demetrius about Hermia and Lysander’s plan to elope will somehow help her with Demetrius. She remarks, rather cryptically, “But herein I mean to enrich my pain, / To have his sight thither and back again” (1.1.250-1).
The meaning of Helena’s statement eventually becomes clear. It seems strange that, the more she is dismissed by Demetrius, the more attracted she feels to him. The truth of the matter begins to come to light in a remark she makes to him:
I am your spaniel; and, Demetrius,
The more you beat me I will fawn on you.
Use me but as your spaniel, spurn me, strike me,
Neglect me, lose me, only give me leave,
Unworthy as I am, to follow you.
What worser place can I beg in your love—
And yet a place of high respect with me—
Than to be usèd as you use your dog?
Things finally begin to come into focus: Helena, in her own mind, has to act almost masochistically and is compelled to act self-degradingly because she feels that the more undeserving she is, the more need she has for love. That, to her, justifies her actions and feelings; this gives a heightened level of meaning to Hermia’s comment, “O hell, to choose love by another’s eyes!” Had Helena not chosen to compare herself to Hermia, and had also not chosen to seek approval from others such as Demetrius, she would not be in the predicament she is in. Moreover, when Helena later does recognize her folly in having compared herself to Hermia, she wonders what “wicked and dissembling glass” she was gazing into that made her think such things. Does her reference to a “glass” mean a mirror? If so, she certainly feels that the image was a distorted one, like that of a funhouse mirror.
Perhaps the real “mirror” Helena was looking into was, in fact, Hermia. She spent much time and energy trying to be like Hermia. So when Hermia caught Demetrius’ eye and she [Helena] did not, Helena had to admit to herself that she and Hermia were two separate individuals. Helena’s problem was that she mistook differences for faults, and believing Hermia to be flawless only caused her to “discover” her own imperfections. In other words, Helena degraded herself because she was comparing herself to someone she believed to be perfect—a paradigm of love, as she saw it.
Helena, who sought to catch Demetrius’ eye, is crushed when he rejects her entirely (Act 2, Scene 2)—the event that leads up to Helena’s decision that she is “as ugly as a bear” and her subsequent realization that maybe modeling herself after Hermia wasn’t such a bright idea after all.
A problem similar to the one facing Helena also occurs to the other characters—she is certainly not the only one who is influenced by others. In the second scene of the second act, a role reversal of sorts occurs and it is now Hermia who is spurned. Lysander, who has never really noticed Helena before, now sees her and says to her, “Transparent Helena! Nature shows art / That through thy bosom makes me see thy heart” (2.2.104-5). But what does he see in her? Apparently Lysander is as clueless about this as we are; he attributes his new choice to reason (2.2.120) and refers to books he has read about love—which he once mentioned in 1.1. Whatever is going on, he not only becomes infatuated with Helena but is sickened by the sight of Hermia, who is confounded. Perhaps he now sees that Hermia has her own imperfections, which he might have previously missed?
This theme of Hermia’s rejection is further developed. Right at the same time as Lysander is eyeing Helena, Hermia has a rather macabre nightmare in which a serpent devours her heart—while Lysander simply watches. It would seem that Hermia didn’t expect Lysander to waver in his love for her. This furthers the previously established theme of attracting the eye of another—Helena was scorned and devastated when Demetrius finally refused to close his eyes to her altogether. Now, in Hermia’s nightmare, her beloved’s gaze is a harsh one; he only looks at her to watch the monster devour her heart. This drives at the oft-repeated theme of acceptance by others. The fear of being ostracized is a powerful one.
We jump ahead to the second scene of Act 3, where everyone is pushed to the limit and the power of the illusions is at its zenith. Even Demetrius faces the punishment of the basilisk, stony gaze—a fear that has so far gnawed away at both women—when Hermia suspects he may have murdered Lysander. Hermia cuts Demetrius down to the same doglike status as Helena cut herself to (see 2.2.203 and 2.2.210); “Out, dog! Out, cur!” cries Hermia to Demetrius. Not only that, but she tells him that the only thing he will get from her is the “privilege never to see me more” (3.2.79), which is interesting, because she said the same thing regarding him in 1.1: “He no more shall see my face” (1.1.202).
Anyway, the action in 3.2 has everyone going for the jugular; the ladies begin insulting each other, and who knows how many different things the two men are quarreling about. Helena thinks that Hermia has joined in a conspiracy with the men to mock her, and then everyone begins a rapid-fire round of accusing and name-calling. In this scene, there is a reason for everything going haywire: As the four people try to manage and understand their individual problems and anxieties, they try to blame everything on one another.
Oddly enough, the same pairs (the two women and the two men) had only recently been desperately trying to identify similarities with their respective “counterparts” so that they would feel more equal to the other (for example, Lysander compared himself to Demetrius in Act 1 by saying that he was just as well-descended, equally rich, et cetera). Now, in stark contrast, this scene (in 3.2) has everyone using shared characteristics only so that they can shift blame. But this is part of the resolution that comes about from this scene: Everyone is forced to realize more and more differences (or for a new phrase, “set aside our similarities”), because this allows them to not only re-establish new identities for themselves but to become more accepting of the individuals they are. In fact, everyone had a case of somewhat of an identity crisis; at one point, when Oberon reveals to Puck that he has enchanted the wrong human, Puck’s excuse is that the Athenians are indistinguishable.
Additionally, this scene allows everyone to really get to the heart of their problems; fears, insecurities, reservations and uncertainties are all exposed. People can finally banish their own unhealthy obsessions with the others—they have been in love with love itself. Long before they ever came into the forest, their love was one of desire and infatuation, a love that would only have ultimately led to disillusionment when the lovers realized, at some point, “Hey, my lover isn’t perfect.” Thus, in some ways the magical confusion that has taken place has served a purpose, after all. Finally, at the end of the confusion, everyone falls asleep, exhausted.
Act 5 may be the final act of the story, but Act 4 contains many more revelations and symbols. In the fourth act, everyone’s sight (in all meanings of the word) has been restored and people are paired off correctly—no bitterness remains. Everything seems to be but a hazy memory, a chimera. Things seem distant, vague, even a bit ethereal. “Methinks I see these things with parted eye, / When every thing seems double” (4.1.188-9), Hermia says; “So methinks; / And I have found Demetrius like a jewel, / Mine own, and not mine own” (4.1.190-2), Helena adds. Demetrius questions whether or not he and the others are actually awake. He describes all that has happened as seeming “small and undistinguishable, / Like far-off mountains turned into clouds” (4.1.186-7). Of course, there is the fifth act (in which Hippolyta proves she has a better insight into the reality of things than Theseus does), but it’s not as important.
Within the play itself, there are a few yet-unresolved items to address. Of course, the argument here has been made about where the conflicts really come from. This story, and the theme of blindness and illusion, is reminiscent of three other literary pieces: Raymond Carver’s short story Cathedral, Sophocles’ Oedipus the King and Edward Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The first two involve physical blindness masking true vision within—oftentimes the absence or distortion of sight allows us to see more than, literally, meets the eye. Albee’s play is about a dangerous game of illusion that two people play, where they are so caught up in their beautifully perfect fantasy that one of them sees the line between reality and illusion begin to blur—and in the end, they have to face the truth, as unpleasant as it may be. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a lot of things go in and out of focus. The magic flower, love-in-idleness, is just as powerful as Lysander’s books about romance—on which he bases his ideas about love. The real problem, however, is that everyone desires what others have—and for exactly that reason. Sometimes we want something only because someone else has it. Helena wanted to be Hermia because she got Demetrius’ attention.
Perhaps if Helena had realized that Hermia’s world wasn’t as picture-perfect as she believed it to be, she might not have been so envious of it. After all, Hermia had to contend with the law, her father and Athenian society in general; she went so far as to say, “Before the time I did Lysander see / Seemed Athens as a paradise to me. / O then, what graces in my love do dwell, / That he hath turned a heaven unto a hell” (1.1.204-7)? The problem is that love is so complex and confusing, which harkens back to the comment about “the course of true love.” Certainly the problem doesn’t stem just from Egeus’ complaint, otherwise she might have said “Before the time my father did Lysander see.”
Going back to the general idea of envy and desire, what else could have caused so many problems throughout? Hermia is a textbook example of one who seems to have it all and who is most wanted by the others—including all three of the lovers! They all see her as a “love object” in a way, because each of them sees something in her that they wish they had. Maybe that’s why nobody seems sure whether to admire or dislike her. In a way, the love everyone is struggling to overcome is their own narcissistic love. In the forest near Athens, even the moon is self-absorbed: “…when Phoebe doth behold / Her silver visage in the wat’ry glass” (1.1.209-10). The moon likes to behold her own image, although unlike the lovers, she apparently finds herself flawless.
So why go any further with this? Because one last question remains: Does this play indeed harmonize with the rest of Shakespeare’s stories, and if so, how? In each story he wrote, love is prominent—and tested. It triumphs … more often than not. Exceptions exist, such as Othello. Shakespeare never suggested that love would always come out on top. In one way, we can’t compare the plays because each one has a different message. Yet in another way, we can, because the messages still have a common theme to them.
Othello, for example, doesn’t contradict the other stories; Shakespeare understood the reality of love, that it is more complex than the longest mathematical equations, there are an infinite number of things that can affect love and relationships… and the harsh reality that it doesn’t always come out a happy ending. Comedies like A Midsummer Night’s Dream are lighthearted, though they too allude to some sort of external force exerted on love. (We may even argue that the only reason Dream worked out so well for the characters is because they were lucky enough to wind up in a comedy—and a dream. If Dream had been written as a tragedy, things would end quite differently.) The tragedies like Romeo and Juliet have the same philosophy on what can influence relationships… these stories take a more serious viewpoint, however, because love is imperfect and often tragic.
So finally, what is the true meaning of this play? What is the external force; is it magic that is to blame? It is argued here that it is not; though it’s entirely possible that Shakespeare may have believed in magic. But even if we play devil’s advocate and assume he did, it doesn’t mean that’s why he put it in the story. “We” (used royally) see it primarily as two things. First of all, magic seems used as the representation of the external force that always complicates love relationships… fate, or at least “things unexpected,” always seem to be part of Shakespeare’s stories. (Certainly a recurring theme for him is that something always makes love complicated!) Secondly, magic seems used not only to add to conflicts, but to help resolve them. Some may ask if, in reality, the love that exists at the end of the story is real. But that’s not the main point here. In this story at least, Shakespeare is showing us one of the many truths of love … and, perhaps, how we can spare ourselves some pain. His point seems to really be a revision of an old saying about truth and beauty being in the eye of the beholder. It seems that Shakespeare’s perspective on this is something similar to this: It would be nice if beauty was in the eye of the beholder, because then people could make that judgment for themselves—and much more would be considered beautiful as a result. Instead, however, it seems beauty is in the eye of the person who has the most influence on the beholder. Only the most independent of beholders could withstand the pressures, perceived and not, of the outside world, while the rest of us have become so used to these circumstances that we simply take the eyes of others as our own.
That, it seems, is the driving force behind this play. As ingenious as each of Shakespeare’s plays is, it may be that the sum of the “parts” is greater than the whole. There is a consistency and a larger message. Each play is like a piece of a jigsaw puzzle that, when completed, reveals something, a larger message. But what it says is up to the individual; we are free to read Shakespeare as we like and draw our own conclusions. As far as love is concerned, we may never know fully what he thought about it, but the old adage that “love is blind” ought to be rephrased as “Love isn’t blind, but it sure needs glasses … which comes as a result of spending too much time in the dark.” Perhaps Shakespeare looked in the mirror and saw more than just himself reflected. He could gaze into the looking-glass and see humanity even more clearly than most individuals can see themselves. Certainly, in Dream, at least, the story is one of breaking the chains that bind. Everyone finally manages to see themselves as they are, imperfections and all … and be accepting of it.