Shakespeare’s comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream follows several groups of warring couples from both the natural human world and the world of fantastical creatures such as fairies and sprites. Interestingly, both the human couples and the non-human couples encounter strife within their romantic interaction and struggle to overcome jealousy and competition within their respective relationships. This essay analyzes Act II, Scene I of the play and delineates its numerous thematic functions within the play as a whole.
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Act II, Scene I represents the locus wherein a significant number of themes investigated over the course of the play originate; these include power, competition, jealousy and covetousness within the romantic context; romantic rejection and unrequited love; empathy; and most notably interference.
Act II, Scene I remains a pivotal scene in the play since this scene marks the moment Oberon decides to interfere in the affairs of the human world and thus initiates the convergence and overlap between the natural human world and the world of fantasy.
Act II, Scene I opens with Puck and the Fairy discussing the schism recently erupted between the power couple of Shakespeare’s fantasy world: Oberon, the king of the fairies and Titania, the queen of the fairies (Shakespeare II, I). Given that they serve warring masters – Puck sides with Oberon and the Fairy with Titania – the stage directions note that Puck and the Fairy enter “from opposite sides,” a physical example of the reality of the world we enter as audience members, a world ostensibly at war (Shakespeare II,I,1).
Puck warns the Fairy to “take heed the queen come not within his sight; For Oberon is passing fell and wrath, Because that she as her attendant hath, A lovely boy, stolen from an Indian king” (Shakespeare II,I,19-22). This first interlude establishes the particulars of the argument between Oberon and Titania, and clarifies for the audience that it remains unresolved, again in a physical manner, intimated by the fact that Fairy leaves as soon as she hears that Titania is one her way (Shakespeare II,I,1).
She cannot afford to be seen talking to someone from Oberon’s side (Shakespeare II,I,1). Oberon and Titania arrive then, and again we see Shakespeare employ war imagery as he describes their entrance as “from one side, Oberon, with his train; from the other, Titania, with hers,” both parties squaring off like soldiers on the field of battle (Shakespeare II,I,59).
The husband and wife exchange a frosty greeting that further elucidates the nature of the conflict between Oberon and Titania; Oberon desires the Indian boy for his own train; Titania refuses(Shakespeare II,I, 60). Oberon accuses Titania of obstinacy when he says, “I’ll met by moonlight, proud Titania” (II,I,60). Titania counters with “what, jealous Oberon,” orders her minions to depart, and shames Oberon publicly when she announces “I have forsworn his bed and company” (Shakespeare II,I,61-62).
The couple’s squabble ends unsettled when Oberon makes Titania an offer, “give me that boy and I will go with thee” to which she curtly replies, “not for thy fairy kingdom” (Shakespeare II,I,143-144). This is the crux of the argument which launches the themes of power, jealousy, covetousness and competition explored through the various romantic relationships in both the natural human world and the fairy world.
Once Titania departs Oberon schemes with Puck and hatches a plan to acquire the Indian boy for his own retinue (Shakespeare II,I). Oberon sends Puck on an errand to locate “a little western flower, Before milk-white, now purple with love’s wound, And maidens call it love-in-idleness. Fetch me that flower; the herb I shew’d thee once: The juice of it on sleeping eye-lids laid, Will make or man or woman madly dote, Upon the next live creature that it sees” (Shakespeare II,I,166-172).
With Puck gone, Oberon shares his plot to use the potion to distract his queen with the audience: “Having once this juice, I’ll…drop the liquor of it in her eyes. The next thing then she waking looks upon, Be it on lion, bear, or wolf, or bull…She shall pursue it with the soul of love: And ere I take this charm from off her sight…I’ll make her render up her page to me” (Shakespeare II,I,175-185).
Oberon covets the Indian page boy to such an extent that he will only offer his wife an antidote for the love potion in exchange for the boy. This exchange demonstrates the theme of covetousness playing out between Oberon and Titania, echoed also later in the play by Helena.
Demetrius and Helena, members of the natural human world, interrupt Oberon’s confession and immediately commence the theme of rejection in the romantic context and unrequited love that runs throughout the play from this point onward. Their exchange, which Oberon eavesdrops upon, also follows the theme of covetousness on Helena’s part which we saw initiated earlier in the scene by the fairy king. Demetrius enters with harsh words for love struck Helena: “I love thee not, therefore pursue me not” (Shakespeare II, I, 188).
He also states his intentions toward the object of his affection Hermia and her lover Lysander: “Where is Lysander and fair Hermia? The one I’ll slay, the other slayeth me” (Shakespeare II, I, 189-190). We see Shakespeare’s theme of unrequited love in Helena’s response to this abysmal rebuff from Demetrius: “You draw me, you hard-hearted adamant; But yet you draw not iron, for my heart, Is true as steel” (Shakespeare II, I, 195-197).
As secret witness to the rough treatment that Helena receives in this scene, Oberon instigates two important thematic developments as a result (Shakespeare II,I, 245). In the first case Oberon exhibits empathy for a human: “Fare thee well, nymph: ere he do leave this grove, Thou shalt fly him and he shall seek thy love” (Shakespeare II, I, 245-246).
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Secondly, Oberon makes the decision to interfere in the affairs of humans when he instructs Puck to dose Demetrius with the love potion: “A sweet Athenian lady is in love, With a disdainful youth: anoint his eyes; But do it when the next thing he espies, May be the lady: thou shalt know the man, By the Athenian garments he hath on. Effect it with some care, that he may prove, More fond on her than she upon her love” (Shakespeare II, I,260-266).
With this instruction to his servant Puck, the king of the fairies takes a firm step into the human world to consciously meddle in the romantic lives of Helena and Demetrius. This pivotal action begins the gradual intermingling of the two worlds over the course of the play, not to mention prompts the later foul up when Puck mistakes Lysander for Demetrius.
In Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream Act II, Scene I marks the starting point for multiple themes that the playwright explores through the action of the play including power, competition, jealousy and covetousness within the romantic context; romantic rejection and unrequited love, and empathy. Most importantly, this scene dramatizes Oberon’s decision to interfere in the affairs of humans, an action that reverberates throughout the play as the natural human world and the world of the fairies slowly yet inevitably merge.
Shakespeare, W. “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” The Annotated Shakespeare: The Comedies, Histories, Sonnets and Other Poems, Tragedies and Romances Complete. Ed. A.L. Rowse. New York: Greenwich House, 1988. 236-277. Print.