The Role of Love in "A Midsummer Nights Dream"

In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare suggests that love is a potentially divisive and destructive power. From the very beginning (1.2.21) Shakespeare sets up the rectangular network of love (and repulsion) between the socially and economically matched Athenian girls Hermia and Helena and their suitors Lysander and Demetrius, which represents damaged relationships between former friends and conflicting interests on all four sides.

This conflict begins when Lysander (the un-favored) and Demetrius (the favored),  equally worthy from a social and economic standpoint, compete for the right to marry Egeus’s daughter Hermia. Egeus decides that Hermia should marry Demetrius, but Hermia boldly rejects her father’s desires and insists on marrying her true love Lysander.

Before the conflict of Hermia, Helena, and the two suitors comes into play, we can already see that Egeus has commanded Hermia to bend her love to suit his wishes. This shows that he is freely willing to sacrifice what most modern audiences would consider a healthy, loving relationship with his daughter in exchange for total authority and his own convenience or desire to one way or another rid himself of Hermia, by marriage to Demetrius, or by death.

Aside from the initially disruptive relations between Helena, Hermia, Dimities, Lysander, and Ageus, there are examples in A Midsummer Night’s Dream of love being overtly used as a distractive power. In (3.2), Helena’s desire to win back Demitrius’s love drives her to betray her friend Hermia by telling Lysander of her secret plan to elope with Lysander.

Oberon’s love juice (3.1), is the most apparent use of love as a weapon. This love potion causes Lysander to temporarily reject Hermia (who is left alone and vulnerable when he flees their camp site) and become obsessed with Helena,  who is also being pursued by her former boyfriend Dimitrius who has become re-enamored with her under influence of the love juice. The showering of adoration from both men inadvertently tormenting Helena who bemoans the sudden affection, recognizing it as obvious trickery of some sort (3.2 122-260). King Oberon’s use of the love juice to disgrace his wife Titania by tricking her into sleeping with the transformed Bottom in (4.1) is the most destructive use of love in the entire play.

However, despite the role of love as a destructive power in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare also seems to remind the audience of the positive, unifying side of  love. Theseus’s defeat of Queen Hippolyta, a conquered wartime foe, could have easily ended in rape, murder, or enslavement, but instead results in a far more peaceful plans for marriage which Theseus willingly waits to consummate until the marriage has been completed.

Another example of this is Theseus’s eventual decision to allow Lysander and Hermia to marry, bringing the potentially fatal conflict between Hermia and her father Egeus to a peaceful end.

<<<< Back to STSH - TALE