Midsummer Night’s Dream opens with a perfect storm of threats to the primary lovers, Hermia and Lysander. She’s in love with him, and he with her, but everyone and everything are against them. Hermia’s father, Egeus, disapproves of Lysander and wants Hermia to marry Demetrius, a rival lover. Theseus, duke of Athens, backs up Egeus and threatens to bring the law down on Hermia with full force.
As Peter Saccio has observed, when Shakespeare’s comic characters face such external obstacles, they do the natural thing: They run away. Hermia and Lysander flee into the green world of the wood, and their flight sets up the major spatial contrast of the play. Act 1 takes place in the city, Acts 2–3 in the wood, and from the middle of Act 4 to the end the characters are back in Athens. This geographic contrast is overlaid with thematic contrasts: city v. wood = day v. night, waking v. sleep, reason v. passion, law v. magic, Theseus v. Oberon.
When they enter the wood, the lovers enter a dream world of potential madness—ruled by the magic of the fairy king and queen, Oberon and Titania—where weavers turn into asses and lovers turn traitor. Luna lights the wood, inspiring lunacy, making the wood a place for lovers, poets, and madmen (cf. Theseus’s speech in 5.1).
The contrasts of city/wood, day/night, sleep/wakefulness recur throughout the play. Theseus talks about bed a lot, and no wonder, since he’s about to marry Hippolyta. But we never actually see anyone asleep in Athens. Within the city walls, it’s endless day, with everyone on alert. No one stays awake for long in the wood. When Hippolyta wants to take some leisure, she heads out to hunt with Theseus. Titania looks for her bower so she can enjoy a pedicure, a fairy massage, and a delicious nap.
For Elizabethans, the association between “wood” and “madness” is partly verbal. When Demetrius first enters the wood, he tells Helena, “here am I, and wode within this wood” (2.1). As Marjorie Garber points out, “‘Wood’ [or ‘wode’], derived from the Old English word wod, means ‘mad’ or ‘lunatic.’” There is a similar pun on “wood” and “wooed.” Demetrius “is maddened, and also ‘wooed’ (by Helena), within the wood.” In short, “to be wood within the wood is also to become part of the wood, to take on its qualities, to become transformative and changeable as the wood itself.”
Once in the wood, the lovers fall asleep and awake repeatedly, each slumber a transforming death and resurrection. Demetrius falls asleep loving Hermia and awakes infatuated with Helena. Lysander falls asleep loving Hermia, awakes in love with Helena, falls asleep again, and awakes with a renewed desire to marry Hermia. Hermia dreams a serpent is eating her heart and awakes to find Lysander has abandoned her. The lovers are sorted when they all fall asleep in the same place and awake at the same time. Each time they sleep, they are like Adam in Eden, lulled into deep sleep so they can wake to a lover’s face.
Shakespeare leaves us wondering whether or not the transformations are in fact transformative. Does Bottom become an ass, or does his assization manifest what was already true? With Bottom, the answer seems to be the latter, but then we’re tempted to ask whether the same is true of the other characters. Puck squeezes love juice into Lysander’s eyes, but is his “magical” change into a lover of Helena really a change or does it manifest hidden desires of his heart? Does Titania’s infatuation with an ass change or unmask her? At the beginning of the play, she quarrels with Oberon over an Indian changeling boy, and their battle throws the wood into chaos. Perhaps their desires are disordered from the beginning; perhaps she’s already trending bestial when the play begins? Does the wood change a person into a wod, or does the wood merely make the wodishness plain?
Whatever happens in the wood, it has what’s needed to avert catastrophe. The farcical production of Pyramus and Thisby that ends the play dramatizes the violent potential of the erotic tangle that begins it. Midsummer Night’s Dream doesn’t end in tragedy: no murders, duels, or suicides. But Theseus, man of law and daylight, isn’t responsible for the comic outcome. Left to his instincts, he would have enforced Egeus’s ancient right and sent Hermia to death or perpetual virginity. Oberon and Puck take the decision from his hands by disordering and then re-ordering the passions of the lovers. The threat to the city is defused, but only because the lovers exit the city and find “grace” elsewhere.
In Midsummer Night’s Dream, as in other plays, the city depends on powers not found within the city. The city creates crises it cannot resolve, in part by trying to stamp out the passions and dreams of the wood. Ultimately, the wood doesn’t untune the city’s harmony but provides the nighttime magic that harmonizes. Shakespeare doesn’t think we can live in the wood, but we can’t live in the city if it is a place of reason without fantasy, of sleepless waking. Unless the city makes room for the power of the wood/wod, the magic of dreamland, it can never become a fully human city.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.