The Play: “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, by William Shakespeare offers a wonderful contrast in human mentality. Shakespeare provides insight into man’s conflict with the rational versus the emotional characteristics of our behavior through his settings. The rational, logical side is represented by Athens, with its flourishing government and society.
The wilder emotional side is represented by the fairy woods. Here things do not make sense, and mystical magic takes the place of human logic. Every impulse may be acted upon without and forethought to their outcome. The city of Athens represents the epitome of civilized man. Ruled by the laws of man and kept in check by society’s own norms.
The human struggle to suppress its unrestrained and irrational tendencies, still being undertaken today, discourages the ‘civilized’ man from making rash and foolish actions. Thus every action should have a sound and logical purpose, based on the social norms.
In the play, Egeus, the father of Hermia, has thoughtfully chosen what he considers an acceptable mate to wed his daughter. Egeus most likely based his decision on economic, political, and social factors in his choice of Demetrius. He is making a reasonable decision based on Hermia’s future in their society.
Unfortunately, Hermia is smitten by Lysander and vice versa. Although her father may have made his decision with every good intention, keeping with the traditional customs of his day, and even perhaps taking into consideration such things as attractiveness, he failed to foresee the desires of his daughter. The young Lysander, who like most young men, cares little for the rules of society, is willing to break tradition and flee Athens to obtain Hermia. Therefore they must leave the rational Athens to enjoy their irrational love.
Theseus, the king of Athens, is the highest symbol of law and order in his kingdom. After winning a war with another kingdom, he chooses to marry their queen, Hippolyta. His decision may very well have been inspired by love, but the political ramifications of their marriage is a more plausible rationale. In fact, Theseus’ apparent love for Hippolyta seems almost as an added reward to an already beneficial partnership. Whether any attraction was there or not probably would not have made a difference.
As king, Theseus must place the kingdom before his own feelings. It simply comes with the position. In short, Athens represents the desire to suppress feelings and impulses and to make decisions based on logic. Thus it does not give the power of raw emotion the true respect it requires, for man is both emotional and rational. Love never has, and never will be predictable. The fairy world represents man’s undisciplined emotional quality. Here the laws of man do not apply and things simply need not make sense. Attributes like adventure, romance, fear, foolishness, and mockery are all things suppressed by Athens and welcomed by the fairy woods.
The fairies respect the untamed heart and they understand the power love holds. These creatures embrace the unruly craziness that passion brings, they live for the moment and are pure at heart. Along with love and passion the fairy world is also susceptible to other emotions running wild. Jealousy, anger, and humor at the expense of others are all around here. Oberon, king of the fairies, is the quintessential symbol of human impulsiveness. He obviously loves his queen, Titania, very much and is instantly jealous of her love for an Indian child.
He rashly devises a plan to snatch up the child for himself and at the same time have a little amusement at Titania’s expense. His plan is to cast a magic spell over her with a ‘love flower’ causing her to fall in love with the first person, or creature, she sees. There is no rational reason for Oberon’s actions, for jealousy is irrationality at its most basic level.
Robin Goodfellow, or puck, is Oberon’s fairy servant, and perhaps the most irrational person in the play. He is the essence of wild and untamed foolishness. He pleases himself by performing his fairy magic on unsuspecting travelers, and simply devotes his time to mischief. He is the one that Oberon entrusts with his plan to inflict Titania with the love spell, and also gives him an extra chore as a bonus. This ends up being a disastrous, yet entertaining event.
Shakespeare successfully contrasts the duality of man’s nature by using two settings with opposite characteristics. Whether this was the entire purpose of the play is doubtful, but it remains an interesting and well-paralleled feature. The people of Athens, struggling to understand the illogical fairy world, and at the same time exhibiting the same behavior. Perhaps Shakespeare is seeing the era of logic and reason obtaining new highs, wished to remind us all of our other side. The emotional quality of mankind may get him into trouble, but it is also what makes life so thrilling and bearable. Like the ying-yang, one cannot live without the other.