In one of AMND’s most enduring passages, Lysander states (Act one scene one, line 134) ‘The course of true love never did run smooth. ’ The conflict that is inevitably born out of love is a central theme at the heart of Midsummer’s Night’s Dream and Hamlet, but is extended by Shakespeare not only to romantic relationships, but to familial bonds as well. The conflict is ultimately resolved in diametrically opposing ways in each play, according to the conventions of their respective genres.
Hamlet is a tragedy, and therefore can result only in death, but AMND, as a comedy, uses the traditional method of marriage to resolve its conflict. Shakespeare opens AMND with the relationship between Athenian Duke Theseus and Amazonian warrior Hippolyta, thereby framing the enfolding drama with the portrayal of a union in which romance and military conflict are inextricably bound: ‘Hippolyta, I woo’d thee with my sword/and won thy love doing thee injuries. (1:1:16) Shakespeare incongruously conflates military imagery withthe language of romance, establishing the theme of love, initially at least, as being fraught with conflict. This is highlighted further as the discussion of Theseus and Hippolyta’s forthcoming nuptials is juxtaposed with the dramatic introduction of Hermia and Lysander, young lovers forbidden to marry by Egeus, Hermia’s domineering father. Lysander and Hermia decide to ‘from Athens turn away our eyes’ (1. 1. 218) and elope to the forest.
Shakespeare’s use of the forest as a backdrop to the young lovers’ elopement is significant. It would have reminded members of the Jacobean audience of ‘Saturnalia’, an ancient Roman festival in honour of the deity Saturn, which took place in the forest and was famous for subverting Roman social norms. A carnival atmosphere pervaded the festival, which included features – such as masters waiting on their servant’s tables – which defied the etiquette of the time. The allusion to Saturnalia emphasises Lysander and Hermia’s defiance of social restraints in eloping against her father’s wishes.
Egeus’ attempted control of Hermia parallels Polonius’s manipulation of Ophelia in Hamlet, as in both plays Shakespeare depicts romantic relationships as complicatedbyfamilial pressures. The forest acts as a symbol for freedom from such conflict. Away from urban civilization and its social traditions, the forest exists as a primeval space where Hermia and Lysander feel their love can truly be celebrated, unhindered by the familial politics they have left behind: ‘to that place the sharp Athenian law cannot pursue us. ’ (1. 1. 62)However, social norms are not the only things overturned in the forest. By pouring a magical potion in the lovers’ eyes, Puck, a mischievous fairy, swaps the object of Demetrius and Lysander affection to Helena. This comic turn sets the enfolding drama in motion, but also demonstrates the cruelty of fickle love, that is so easily swayed to devastating effect, as Hermia laments: ‘O spite! O Hell! I see you are all bent, to set against me. ’ (3. 2. 145) Shakespeare expounds upon this theme of love in Hamlet too but with far more serious consequences; as befits a tragedy.
Whereas Hermia is part of the tradition of Shakespearean women who defy their controlling fathers to marry their lovers, Ophelia proves far more susceptible to Polonius and Laertes’ bullying as they are successful in thwarting her relationship with Hamlet. Just as Shakespeare portrays affection as transient through Puck’s meddling with Demetrius and Lysander, Laertes lectures Ophelia on love’s temporary and untrustworthy nature: ‘forward, not permanent, sweet, not lasting. ’ (1. 3. ) The emphatic rhythm of Laerte’s dialogue is created by the many caesuras that break up this line; each word drumming itself into Ophelia’s psyche. Ironically, it isn’t the ‘trifling of [Hamlet’s] favour’ (1. 3. 6) that breaks Ophelia’s heart, and ultimately her sanity, but rather her family’s interference, in particular her father’s political scheming. A. C Bradley in his book ‘Shakespearian Tragedy’ notes that ‘good conflict must be drawn out’; accordingly, both Hamlet and AMND are over five acts long and only get resolved in the final scenes, each according to their genre.
The conflict inherent in Shakespeare’s portrayal of romantic relationships is given tangible form as Lysander and Demetrius prepare to fight over the woman they profess to love: ‘if thou say so withdraw and prove it to. ’ (3. 2. 255) Despite the threat of violence about to unfold on stage, Shakespeare’s audience would have been aware that as a comedy, A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream would culminate in marriage rather then bloodshed.
In the opening scene of the play, Lysander alludes to the May Day rituals that he had participated in: ‘And in the wood a league without the town, where I did meet…to do observance to a morn of May’ (1. 1. 165) The May Day rites were an ancient celebration of fertility and renewal, and the setting of the lustrous forest reinforces this atmosphere, even throughout Lysander and Demetrius’s altercation, emphasising that the conflict would, in the end, be resolved happily. In stark contrast, Hamlet and Laertes fight over Ophelia’s grave.
Shakespeare uses the graveyard setting to foreshadow the men’s death as a result of their growing hostility – unlike in AMND, the conflict within a tragedy cannot end in marriage; it must end in death: ‘I thought thy bride-bed to have decked, sweet maid, and not have strewed thy grave’. (5. 1. 241) Throughout the play Ophelia is referred to by language such as ‘maid’, emphasising her youth and her innocence. This heightens the tragic impact of her decline and eventual death, but also reinforces how she is infantilised by her father, and therefore controlled.
When Polonius finds out that Ophelia has been conducting a romance with Hamlet, he insists that she no longer have contact with the prince: ‘I will teach you. Think yourself a baby. ’ (1. 3. 105) Polonius convinces Ophelia that she has been naive and stupid to believe Hamlet’s professions of love: ‘Affection? Pooh! You speak like a green girl. ’ (1. 3. 101) In Polonius’s dialogue, Shakespeare repeatedly employs images of Ophelia as a child to portray how her father psychologically controls her, by making her dependent on his commands, as a young child would: ‘I shall obey, my lord. (1. 3. 136) In AMND Shakespeare constructs a similar conflict around a father-daughter relationship, as Egeus wants his daughter Hermia, to marry Demetrius and not her lover, Lysander. Shakespeare draws upon ancient Greek mythology to portray his characters and their respective philosophies. Egeus displays Apollonian attributes as he paternalistically favours a strict adherence to the law above all else, even to the point of death: ‘As she is mine, I may dispose of her…or to her death according to our law. ’ (1. 1. 3) Egeus commoditises his relationship with his daughter, as he considers her a possession to be controlled and exploited. Like Polonius who commands Ophelia to ‘set your entreatments at a higher rate’ (1. 3. 122), Egeus’s diction is replete with the language of commerce as he tries to trade his daughter: ‘and she is mine, and all my rights of her I do estate unto Demetrius. ’ (1. 1. 97) Hermia, however, embodies the Dionysian life philosophy, as she embraces passion and resists her father’s moralistic control: ‘My soul consents not to give sovereignty’ (1. . 82) Unlike Ophelia who submits to her father’s demands and therefore breaks off her relationship with Hamlet, Hermia prioritises romance over filial duty as she spiritedly defies Athenian law: ‘Oh hell to choose love by another’s eyes’ (1. 1. 140) The conflicts that are engendered by love are complicated even further by the disparity between reality and illusion, which is a central theme in both plays. In both Hamlet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, eyes are used as a symbol of the merging of reality and that which seems to be reality ie.
Illusion: ‘seems madam? Nay it is. I know not seems…no, nor the fruitful river in the eye, nor the dejected ‘haviour of the visage. ’ (1. 2. 75) The juxtaposition by Hamlet of his father, Old Hamlet, and Claudius invokes similar language with reference to the eye: ‘what devil was’t that thus has cozened you at hoodman-blind? / Eyes without feeling, feeling without eyes, /ears without hands or eyes’ (3. 4. 78). Shakespeare elects to convey the inherent tragic conflict in love by using the language of eyes: ‘Ha! Have you eyes?
You cannot call it love. ’ (3. 4. 68)Here the Gertrude’s love for Claudius is presented through the eyes of Hamlet as being ‘stewed in corruption’ (3. 4. 95) and the maternal bonds between her and Hamlet cause her to regret her actions and fear for her spiritual health: ‘O Hamlet speak no more. Thou turnest mine eyes into my very soul / and there I see such black and grained spots. ’(3. 4. 89) In the final scene of the play, all characters must face their spiritual destiny in their death, showing how conflict in Hamlet results only in death.
Conflict of reality and illusion is also symbolised through reference to the eye in AMND, as Puck pours the poison into Lysander and Demetrius’s eyes it is then that comic drama enters the scene as love’s object is subverted: ‘Methinks I see things with parted eye’ (4. 1. 188) The illusion of the lovers exchanged allegiances is representative of the conflict that can result from reality being destabilized especially where love is concerned: ‘Have you not set Lysander, as in scorn/ to follow me, praise my eyes and face? ’ (3. 2. 23) Eventually, love is restored to the couples and Theseus bids that ‘these couples shall be eternally knit’ (4. 1. 180) and here illusion is replaced with reality which results in the marriage of the couples, in accordance with the comic convention. The significance of Puck’s last speech, which is spoken to the audience, is essential. Puck tells the audience that they should ‘think this and all is mended: that you have but slumbered here while these visions did appear; and this weak and idle theme no more yielding than a dream. Puck tells them to imagine that the entire play wasn’t real, so where in Hamlet reality wins out in the end, in AMND the art of illusion leaves the play on a cliff hanger and the audience must decide whether or not reality exists. This is all part of the comic convention. In conclusion, Shakespeare presents parallel conflicts in both plays, each resulting from conflicted relationships, but they are resolved in accordance with the two plays’ genres. He concludes all conflict in Hamlet with death and tragedy and all conflict in AMND with laughter and comedy.
Elizabethan and modern day audiences would identify the conflict within Hamlet as the play’s catalyst towards the catastrophic ending, whilst viewing the conflict within AMND with less seriousness, knowing hostility between characters will ultimately dissolve. Shakespeare appears to be using the themes within Hamlet, such as death and madness, to present conflict between people as an inevitable part of people’s lives, whilst the farcical nature of the battles within AMND suggest conflict is fleeting and avoidable. ‘So, good night unto you all. / Give me your hand if we be friends, and Robin shall restore amends. ’ (AMND 5. 1. 419)
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