The motif of transformation pervades A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The love potion used by Puck and Oberon, which embodies the spirit of comic confusion in the play, is emphatically a theatrical device, dealing in mistaken appearances and theatrical illusions. Used on the two male lovers, they vie to outdo each other in their inconstancy. When Lysander gives up Hermia for Helena in an instant, we wonder if the effect of the love potion can be psychologically explained: is his sudden change of affection a consequence of Hermia’s refusal to sleep with him in the forest? When Puck doses Demetrius with the love potion as he lies asleep in the forest, he awakens to see Helena standing before him and offers her his eternal devotion. Men are like this in other Shakespearean romantic comedies, like the aptly-named Proteus in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, or the four gentlemen in Love’s Labor’s Lost who perjure themselves as quickly as they make vows.
Transformation through the theatrical artifice of the love potion is also central to the plot of the quarrel between Oberon, King of Shadows, and Titania, Queen of the Fairies. Oberon’s first reason for wanting Puck to bring him the love potion, in fact, is so that they can anoint Titania’s eyes. His motive is to teach her a lesson in wifely obedience by forcing her to fall in love with the next thing that she waking looks upon, “Be it on lion, bear, or wolf, or bull, / On meddling monkey, or on busy ape.” To us mortals it may seem strange that Oberon should wish to punish his wife by forcing her to have an affair with some animal, in effect cuckolding himself, but then fairies do not do things the way we ordinary mortals do. As instructed, Puck anoints Titania’s eyes and is delighted with the result. “My mistress with a monster is in love!” he crows gleefully. This love transformation is truly remarkable: Titania’s affections alight on Bottom the Weaver, chief of a thespian group of artisans rehearsing a play in the forest in preparation for the festivities celebrating Duke Theseus’ forthcoming marriage to Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons.
In the magical, theatrical transformations of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare is playing with Ovid’s Metamorphoses and with the Greek myths that Ovid and Shakespeare knew so well, of gods pursuing mortals with amorous intent: Zeus seducing Leda or Ganymede (either sex will do), Apollo chasing after Daphne (who asks to be transformed into a laurel tree to escape the god’s importunity), Aphrodite languishing for the love of Adonis, and still more. Such legends celebrate the mystery of incarnation, the descent of the godhead into human life, often in such a way as to launch a war or some other great event in human history: Zeus’ seduction of Leda led to the birth of Helen of Troy (sister of Clytemnestra) and hence the Trojan War. No war ensues as a result of Bottom’s transformation. Instead, the event is a tribute to the irrational power of eros, among mortals of course, but to no less a degree among the gods.
Shakespeare must have found inspiration for his fascination with metamorphosis and transformation not simply in Ovid, but in the theatre itself. The motif of transformation is inherently theatrical, calling attention to its own devices of impersonation and rapid changing of roles, for the delight of audiences and of the actors themselves. When Oberon says at one point, as he and Puck are about to behold the tribulations of the unhappy lovers, “I am invisible, / And I will overhear their conference” (act 2, scene 1), we grasp immediately what has happened: he has told us he is invisible, and so we accept that as a theatrical fiction. It involves our collaboration with the actors: if they say they are invisible, we say, okay, they are invisible. We see them perfectly well, but we understand that for purposes of theatrical illusion the other actors onstage, especially the young lovers, cannot “see” them at all.
This meta-theatrical trick works especially well in the long scene of the lovers’ quarrel, when, owing to the mistaken applications of the love-juice on the eyes of Demetrius and Lysander, the four young people are hopelessly at odds with one another and unhappy with themselves. Puck and Oberon are there, listening for quite some time, and perhaps communicating silently with the audience their sense of comic delight at the mishaps taking place. Then Puck takes charge. Under Oberon’s instructions he impersonates Lysander as he talks with Demetrius, and then uses Demetrius’ voice to stir up Lysander to fury. Actors are of course good as mimics; that is their stock in trade.
What’s more, since Puck is “invisible” he is able to walk among the mortals without being “seen,” egging the two young men to attempt mayhem on each other while at the same time leading them here and there in such a way that no physical harm will result. Puck thereby stirs up complications and unhappiness while assuring us as audience that ultimately “Jack shall have Jill; / Naught shall go ill; / The man shall have his mare again, and all shall be well.”
The device of transformation is a potent artistic weapon: it invites collusion between actors and audience that gives us, the spectators, a sense of artistic omniscience. Since we know more than any of the mortals on stage, we are like gods. More than any other figure, Puck is the comic spirit of the play, and of Shakespeare’s dramatic art. By functioning as the instrument of the device of metamorphosis, Puck moves us and the play through a delightful anxiety to, ultimately, a resolution. It is one that we can appreciate as a triumph of great comic theatre.
Nowhere is Shakespeare’s concept of comic theatre more vividly displayed than in the fifth and final act. Theseus leads off with a wonderful discussion of how lunatics, lovers and poets are essentially alike. The lunatic “sees more devils than vast hell can hold,” the lover “all as frantic, / Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt” and:
The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to nothing
A local habitation and a name.
Shakespeare, through Theseus, is clearly talking about his art as a comic dramatist. This play does just what Theseus describes: through the use of vibrant poetic imagination it brings into dramatic existence things that no human can actually see, like fairies and transformations, giving them a substance in the world of theatre that is eternal. Shakespeare’s fairies are “real” in a way that we are not, for they have existed for more than 400 years and show no signs of disappearing, whereas we are bound to our mortal span of years. The poet’s craft is to give to “airy nothing / A local habitation and a name.”
Shakespeare’s superb metatheatrical skill in writing a play that is really about itself as theatrical art is displayed most vividly in the concluding pageant of Pyramus and Thisbe. Again, the story comes from Ovid and Greek myth. On its surface, the playlet is absurd, stuffed with grossly improbable characters like a moon that literally has a dog and a thornbush, and a wall that discourses on the hole it provides for the lovers of the title. Clearly Shakespeare is exploring the very nature of mimesis, or theatrical representation, making the point through caricature that true dramatic action conveys its ideas and images through metaphor, showing a part for the whole rather than attempting to be literal. If one wishes to indicate that the moon is shining on the night of the play’s action, the acting company need not worry about opening a casement window so that the actual moon can shine on their endeavors. They need merely have a dog and a thornbush.
Shakespeare goes on to bravely compare the art of the Mechanicals’ playmaking in Pyramus and Thisbe with his own in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Both plays are about young lovers who are forced by parental opposition to elope, with frightening consequences. Both portray the emotional turmoil of the lovers as they encounter physical dangers. Shakespeare’s comparison is daring, in that we can see what a fine line divides true comedy from ridiculous bathos. The story of Pyramus and Thisbe is also remarkably like that of Romeo and Juliet, which Shakespeare wrote either before or after Midsummer; we can’t be sure which.
Was Shakespeare parodying his own great love tragedy? Well, why not? In either case, he seems to have been acutely aware of what kind of comedy he was serving up to his appreciative audiences in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The meta-theatrical awareness invites us to see this play not simply as a splendid entertainment in its own right, but also as a witty and exquisite defense of the kind of fantastic and imaginative romantic comedy for which Shakespeare is justly famous.
David Bevington is the Phyllis Fay Horton Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in the Department of English at the University of Chicago. He has edited the Complete Works of Shakespeare for Pearson/Longman, and his latest book is Murder Most Foul: Hamlet Through the Ages.