Love is clearly one of the main themes in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Nights Dream, to the extent that the play itself could be approached thematically as an exploration and meditation on the different types of love which exist between human beings. One of the most known lines from the play, Lysander’s remark that “the course of true love never did run smooth” (Act 1, Scene 1, 134), is a clear example of romantic love. Yet romantic love does exhaust the different forms of love in the play, and moreover, other types of love are not missing this same dimension of “not running smoothly.” In this regard, owing to the comic nature of the play, it can be argued that Shakespeare identifies different types of love in his play, so as to demonstrate a common problematic core to these forms of love, which entails all types of love pose a fundamental dilemma to those involved in the relationship.
Clearly, the most explicit example of this thesis from the play is with regards to romantic love. One of the central storylines of Shakespeare’s play is the relationship between Theseus and Hippolyta, which is a case of romantic love, their upcoming marriage framing the other narrative threads of the work. Yet even though it appears that Theseus and Hippolyta have reached a certain happiness in their upcoming marriage, a happiness that is consistent with the intuitive understanding of what romantic love entails, it is clear that Lysander’s aforementioned words are applicable to this case study in romantic love as well. Theseus thus states that “Hippolyta, I woo’d thee with my sword/And won thy love doing thee injuries.” (Act 1, Scene 1, 17-20) Here, romantic love has not begun from some type of sensitivity or romantic feeling between two individuals, but rather the exact opposite. Theseus alludes to the aggressiveness in his pursuit of Hippolyta, to the point of inflicting some type of wound on her so as to secure his bride to be. Certainly, a comic tone should be noted in these lines, but it re-enforces the notion that romantic love is not merely some type of absolutely smooth and ephemeral process in which two souls become one.
From an intuitive perspective, that parental love is problematic is much more easier to grasp, and such problematic parental love is another key theme in the play, above all in the form of the relationship between Egeus and his daughter Hermia. Egeus is the archetypical commanding father figure, who, understanding that Hermia is truly in love with Lysander, nevertheless prefers that Demetrius is the choice as Hermia’s husband. Egeus, however, is still arguably thinking from a position of fatherly love in his decision, thinking that Hermia’s love for Lysander is more the result of the latter’s manipulation of his daughter: “Stand forth, Demetrius. My noble lord, This man hath my consent to marry her. Stand forth, Lysander: any my gracious duke, This man hath bewitch’d the bosom of my child.” (Act 1, Scene 1, 28-31) Although Egeus’ authoritative decision is clearly against Hermia’s wishes, it is still, in Egeus’ view, in her best interests. Shakespeare thus makes a clear case for the presence of tension and problems in cases of familial love.
The love of friendship, in contrast, would seem to be a form of love that is unproblematic, to the extent that there are no social obligations which bind us to the love of friendship. It would seem that we find friends accidentally in the course of our lives, from sharing a common interest or a common perspective on life. The friendship of Hermia and Helena is one case of two women who have been bound together by such an amicable love. However, even this type of love encounters dilemmas. The women become supremely jealous of each other because of, above all, the appearance of romantic love in both their lives, the friendship deterioriating to the point that Helena in desperation at the loss of their relationship states that they have lost their “sisters’ vows, the hours that we have spent together.” (Act III, Scene 2, 203) In one sense, the love of friendship emerges spontaneously and is free of problems based on how it develops, but Shakespeare in one sense shows that this type of love ultimately can be very fragile, especially when other forms of love, such as romantic love, appear on the scene.
Thus, Shakespeare demonstrates different forms of love in the play. But he also makes a commentary essentially showing how even disparate forms of love still can remain problematic. A Midsummer Nights Dream reverses the cliché that love is the optimal solution, by showing that love in all its different forms can contain a problematic core.