The scene chosen is Scene II of Act III (Shakespeare, p. 61) which is set in another part of the woods where Oberon meets Puck to meet regarding Oberon’s plan to make Titania fall for a hideous creature in the woods. Puck reports that Titania has fallen in love with one of the silly peasant actors whose head Puck replaced with that of an ass. Oberon is delighted at this piece of news yet he sees Demetrius and Hermia still conflicted, as Hermia is still in love with Lysander and Demetrius is following Hermia vying for her passions. Oberon orders Puck to find Helena of Athens who is ‘fancy-sick’ and ‘pale of cheer’ (Shakespeare, p. 66). Helena and Lysander enter presenting a new turn of events with Lysander professing his love to Helena and saying that he ‘had no judgment’ when he swore his love to Hermia. Demetrius is also enchanted to fall in love with her and thus Demetrius and Lysander are both in love with Helena, who resents their love, thinking that they are ‘all bent to set against me for your merriment’ (Shakespeare, p. 69). A grand confusion rises as Helena fears that all three are mocking her, Hermia is befuddled with Lysander’s drastic change in emotions and both Lysander and Demetrius are arguing for contending for the ‘fair Helena’ (Shakespeare, p. 74). Lysander declares that he hates Hermia and loves Helena (Shakespeare, p. 77) to which Hermia is outraged. It leads to a full confrontation between the Athenian youths which Oberon blames Puck for. They plan to resolve the confusion through charming Lysander to love Hermia. Puck entices the two couples into a small clearing in the forest where he applies the potion on Lysander’s eyes so when he wakes up “Jack shall have Jill; Nought shall go ill” and “the man shall have his mare again and all shall be well” (Shakespeare, p. 88, 89).
The scene is filled with the gist of the comedy that exists in the play. The whole comedic climax rests in this scene where the mistake of Puck is visible in the shape of the part-comedic part-tragic series of events. The mistaking of lovers, Helena’s feeling of insecurity, Demetrius, and Lysander’s blind affection for Helena and Hermia’s helplessness and outrage depict a critical theme of the play. In this scene, we may interpret love as a blinding force that may even cost people their sense of judgment and reason, as was seen in the case of Lysander and Demetrius, or cause us to be completely and totally helpless, as was the situation of Hermia. Appearance and reality, art, imagination, and above all love were central. The play has been understood as implying, platonically, that life is a dream or skeptically, that romantic love is a dream. The faculty of imagination, both celebrated and mocked in the play is integral to the audience and the playwright’ (Kehler, p. 3).
The scenic construction is fairly complicated and involves various entrances and exits. It begins with the conversation between Oberon and Puck and as they oversee the quarrels between the couples, the entrances come one by one starting with Hermia and Demetrius.
The place of this particular scene in the entire plot is fairly crucial and circumnavigates around the comedic confusion between the four lovers. It is one of these major themes that this scene highlights – a theme that brought Shakespeare to a wider frame of audiences all across the world. Because of the fairies, the music, the comical mistaking of the lovers, and the incomparable farce of Pyramus and Thisbe, it had often been considered especially suitable for introducing children to Shakespeare (Kehler, p. 4).
The characterization of the entire scene and the array of the characters in their specific roles and their significance to the play are well-organized in this scene. It fully exposes to the audience the true nature of each of these characters, depicting Oberon as the key player in the change of stories in the lives of the four lovers. With Puck, Oberon’s plan meets chaos due to the inherent characterization of Puck as the merry, mischief-making spirit. He is portrayed as the spirit who obtains glee from the misfortunes of the beings around him. In his initial speech, when he is relating to Oberon the tale of Titania falling in love with a man with the head of an ass, he uses clever and delighted analogies to explain the situation: “He murder cries and help from Athens calls. Their sense thus weak, lost with their fears, thus strong, made senseless things begin to do them wrong.” When he recounts Titania’s mistake, he says, “When in that moment, — so it came to pass, — Titania wak’d, and straightaway lov’d an ass.” The characterization of Oberon is the witty scheme-master who thinks that all this “falls out better than I could devise” (Shakespeare, p. 62), of Demetrius and Lysander, they are nothing but the lovestruck fools who respond to every situation that comes before them with the affectionate feelings towards Helena. Helena on the other hand finds this offensive and falls into a deeper trap of confusion and insecurity as Hermia wants to attack her for stealing Lysander: “You thief of love! What! Have you come by night and stol’n my love’s heart from him?” (Shakespeare, p. 77).
Shakespeare’s use of language in this scene marks much of the comedy. The insults that Hermia uses at Helena such as “cankerblossom” and “thou painted maypole” provide for the comical subtlety in the play. When the alluded Lysander insults Hermia in turn, he mocks her of her shortness, and says, “Get you gone, you dwarf; you minimus, of hind’ring knot-grass made; you bead, you acorn” (Shakespeare, p. 80). On the other hand, as Oberon speaks, his words are mystical and powerful, as he directs Puck to redo and amend the mistakes, “The starry welkin cover thou anon with drooping fog, as black as Acheron, and lead these testy rivals so astray, as one come not within another’s way” (Shakespeare, p. 82).
The theatrical potential of the scene has great and visible margins. Also proven by the amount of modern cultural and popular references made from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” the comedic power, creation of mythical beings, an array of confusion and pathos of characters such as Hermia and Helena, it gives a great way for the entire play to have great theatrical significance. In this scene, in particular, as the comedic and confusion-laden characters are at their climactic best, arguing and battling over the confusion created and being watched by Puck and Oberon, the scene has much potential to be one of the most entertaining, levitating, and engrossing scenes of the entire play.
The themes, characters, the grand scenic construction made for the major characters of the play to be onstage and for the significance of two other important characters overlooking their battle, Scene II of Act III provides a glimpse of Shakespeare’s genius as a storyteller and a dramatist. His language brings life to the characters with their very rhythm. Puck, as he entices Lysander in order to put him to sleep, says, “Up and down, up and down; I will lead them up and down; I am fear’d in field and town. Goblin, lead them up and down” (Shakespeare, p. 84). These words express Puck’s roguish spirit. Where Shakespeare uses simple, effective, short rhymes to portray impishness, he has the capability to use the same technique to a completely different effect in this scene as well. When Helena wants to run away from Hermia, she uses the same short rhyme with a direct and impacting meaning, “Your hands than mine are quicker for a fray; My legs are longer though, to run away” (Shakespeare, p. 81). Hermia replies, “I am amaz’d, and know not what to say” (Shakespeare, p. 81). The dialogue is not only powerful in its simplicity but also in its duplicity. In it, Helena, taunted by Hermia for being tall and of higher stature, retorts to Hermia for being well-able to hurt her, but not fast enough to catch her since she is taller and her legs can carry her further.
Overall, the scene is integral to the play in many ways. Its greatest significance is its comical elements which form as the basis for the entire theme of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. The droll in the muddle of the situation creates its highest climactic point in this scene. The remedies are brought forward to reduce this confusion and the audiences also take a deeper look at the lovers and the crossing of each other’s paths in the most unique and novel fashion. It is this uniqueness of the situation, exposition of characters, the subtlety of the various themes of the play, and the proficient skill of Shakespeare as a language mastermind that creates the high entertainment, the literary and popular appeal of the scene as well as of the play on the whole.
Kehler, Dorothea. A Midsummer Night’s Dreams: Critical Essays. New York: Routledge, 1998.
Shakespeare, William. A midsummer night’s dream. Anstey, Leics: Thorpe, 1991.