Hamlet and a Midsummer Night's Dream

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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.’ (1.1.162)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.’ (1.3.7) 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...
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