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1 Nathaniel Rosenthalis

Eloping from the Real: Imagination and Romantic Love in A Midsummer Nights Dream

Although often described as a comedy, William Shakespeares A Midsummer Nights Dream (MND) has serious preoccupations with the ideas it treats farcically. Principal among them is romantic love as well as imagination, the engine behind dreams, fantasies, and other created combinations of images and feelings. In the dark woods where most of the dream-riding drama occurs, the fairy king Oberon orchestrates via a magical flower and a wayward assistant a great confusion of love and imagination among a group of lovers. Bewitched, the two young men Demetrius and Lysander abandon their romantic interest in the fair Hermia and gain eyes for her close friend and confidant, Helena, much to the chagrin of both women. Having encountered the four lovers stirring from their dream in the forest and now returned to his palace in Athens, Theseus, the Duke of Athens, expresses his doubts about imagination by examining the lunatic, the lover, and the poet as figures in whom imagination takes a particular strength. His skepticism contains, however, more ambivalence than at first appears. Moreover, Theseus speech functions in the play as a significant point of comparison for other attitudes toward and representations of imagination and its complex (and gendered) relationship with romantic love. In its clear analysis of the imagination, the speech is a major moment in the play wherein Theseus questions to what degree imagination has made the tales of Lysander, Demetrius, Helena and Hermia more strange than true (MND 5.1.1). His disbelief piqued, he muses on imagination more generally by examining the three figures of imagination all compact ( 5.1.5). The lunatic and the lover, he concludes, share a frantic excess of imagination, the former

2 envisioning more devils than vast hell can hold and the latter seeing the ideal of beauty even in the brow of a homely gypsy (5.1.8-9).1 Theseus doubts, however, betray an element of fascination with the poets imagination. He uses six lines (rather than the three granted to the lunatic and the lover) to describe how the fine frenzy of the poets eye bodies forth/ the forms of things unknown (5.1.12-17). In giving airy nothing/ a local habitation and a name that others can read and experience, Theseus seems to acknowledge that the poet can dimensionalize the imagination in a way the lover and the lunatic cannot (5.1.12-17). He concludes his speech by noting that the overactive imagination of all or any of the three can be so fooled as to mistake a bush for a bear in the nighttime (5.1.22). He does not discount the approach of rhetorical figuration (he himself describes reason as cool and metonymizes the gypsy with the brow of Egypt); instead, he suspects the deployment of rhetorical figuration in shaping fantasies instead of contributing to the accuracy of cool reason which he seems to imagine himself to possess (5.1.5-6). It is in part, then, the mode of obtaining understanding that Theseus questions; he distinguishes between comprehension (intellectual) and apprehension (more intuitive) two times in the speech (5.1.5-6, 19-20). By thus separating the mind into its preferable cool reason and its problematically hot shaping fantasies, Theseus attends to a rationalist worldview that he does not actually maintain in the rest of the play (5.1.5-6). The speech, when considered in its immediate and broader contexts, complicates our understanding of Theseus and the plays attitudes toward imagination in several ways. The speech, we should note, also complicates his character by exposing his attitude toward the lovers. Never a victim of Oberons flower love-juice, Theseus seems to imagine himself in the speech as a matured man of cool reason rather than the desperately lustful groom-to-be he is in the

We will observe the importance of eye imagery later in the paper.

3 opening scene, where he makes one of the most striking (certainly the most economic) similes in the entire play, complaining of the long waiting: she lingers my desires/ Like to a stepdame, or a dowager/ Long withering out a young mans revenue (1.1. 4-6, 5.1.5). It seems then that experience fuels his analysis of lovers, lunatics, and poets more than he might admit. Theseus begrudging rationality finds complication most immediately in his wife-to-be Hippolytas response, but before Theseus gives his speech, the amateur actor and charmingly naive literalist Bottom, who awakens from his own magical flower-induced dream, presents an alternate but still corresponding rendering of the imagination. He foregrounds a disbelief as well as a delight toward his most rare vision of possessing a donkey head and receiving sweet nothings from Titania, the fairy queen herself who has fallen into enfatuation with Bottom through her husbands machinations (4.2.214). Mixing up his senses, Bottom muses how the eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, mans hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart report what his dream was (4.2. 214-17).2 This unknowability of a mystic experience, interestingly enough, prompts him to plan to ask his friend Peter Quince to write a ballet of this dream, which seems to suggest that Bottom imagines an art form (the ballad) capable of conveying this dream built of impossible imaginings (4.2.67). After Theseus speech, Hippolyta suggests that the lovers tales may contain more than fancys images since each of them experienced the delusions of the night together; moreover, she finds their improbable experience strange and admirable (5.1. 24-7). Bottoms disbelief recalls

It seems that this mixing up of senses enacts and recreates the mixing up of donkey and human body that Oberons trick resulted in. To be discussed later.

4 Theseus more advanced stage of skepticism3 and Bottoms delight corresponds to Hippolytas appreciation of the strange and admirable qualities of the imagined. Though Bottoms speech lacks the elegance and lucidity of Theseus verses, it has its own appealing naivet, an eagerness to engage with what he does not understandhe displays the yearnings and eagerness of a writer without any of the polish and refinement. We thus see a range of distinct apprehensions and comprehensions of the imagination in this brief space towards the plays end. While Theseus separates the imagination into three illustrations and Bottom and Hippolyta contribute their own perspectives, overall MND blurs such distinctions in addressing the connection between love and imagination, as seen by the repetition of optical imagery. As a site where the imagination and romantic love operate, the eyes take on a special significance. Concluding the first scene of the first act, Helena mourns her unrequited affections towards Demetrius by imagining love in various ways. She suggests, most relevantly, that love is especially vulnerable to the imagination because it looks not with the eyes, but with the mind,/ and therefore is wingd Cupid painted blind (I.I.234-6). Here love becomes a randomized deceptive error whereby one dotes on anothers eyes, imagining those eyes to have form and dignity instead of recognizing their true base and vile qualitiesin other words, the imagination of Cupidized love distorts reality in a distinctly painful way (1. 1. 230-231). Indeed, Oberon declares that he intends to use the magical flower to streak his wife Titanias eyes/ and make her full of hateful fantasies (2.2.257-8). Important to note here is that the state of the relationshipmarried or pre-marriagemakes no difference to the vulnerability of the eyes; the

To sidestep for a moment, we should note the importance of scene changes here. That Theseus delivers this speech within the civility of his palace in the city, rather than in the dark enchanting and enchanted woods, emphasizes that his intellectual distinctions about imagination are free from the confusion of the woods and Pucks tomfoolery and therefore are more lucid.

5 group of lovers and the couple Titania and Oberon (as well as Theseus and Hippolyta) are subjects to the egalitarian whims of ocular interference and its consequences.4 While blurring these distinctions, the optical imagery also sharpens the problem of gender in love and the imagination. In the first scene of the first act, after Hermia has rebelled against the authority of her father and the state by refusing to marry the man she does not love, Lysander turns to her to establish why her cheek is so pale, how chance the roses there do fade so fast? (1.1.130). Raging, Hermia replies that perhaps it is for want of rain, which I could well/ Beteem them from the tempest of my eyes (1.1.131-2). In Hermias eyes her female feelings storm; and indeed it is only after the pursuit of her own feminine-rebellious vision that we enter the dark forest where confusion is King (not queen) in the form of Oberon. The agency of the magic flower stands in for mimetic desire, in which Demetrius desires Hermia because Lysander desires her, which poses significant problems, for, as Hermia exclaims, O hell! To choose love by anothers eyes (1.1.140). Indeed, it is in the group of human lovers that the young men are treated with the love juice while the two women remain unblemished and constant in their feelings. The optical imagery thus helps us see that the content of the comedy begins with the willful disobedience of the female even though the terms of the male (Oberon as well as Lysander and Demetrius) play out the plays conflicts.

But here weve conflated the fairies and the humans. Are the gender relations among the fairies analogous to or mirrors of the gender relations among the humans? It is quite clear that the fairies operate under different rules in one sense (they can use magic) but abide by the laws of bickery and resentment that lord over humans. Ultimately, then, romantic love and imagination make the trees sway in both the fairy and human realms, and it is in the combination of both realms that Shakespeare chooses to treat his conflicts: the effect of this is to heighten the everyday world the play returns to by its end, and so make more vivid the role of imagination in love as an everyday concern.
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6 The eye imagery appears also as a central image in the speeches of two men, Theseus and Bottom. Theseus uses it to imagine the source of power for the poet who glance[s] from heaven to earth; from earth to heaven in a fine frenzy whereby his imagination can produce its airy nothings (5.1.9, 12). But the reality of the play after Puck miscarries Oberons orders to drop the flowers juice into the lovers eyes merges quickly with hateful fantasies5; no longer can Helenas pre-forest and Theseus post-forest impassioned meditations function. Furthermore, imagination is crucial to the characters orientation during their forest experience and after they awaken: When they next awake, all this derision/ shall seem a dream and fruitless vision (3.2.370-1). Oberons declaration for the lovers becomes reality; after Theseus and his train leave, the group of four lovers describes the strangeness of awakening from their visions and exit after pledging to recount their dreams while they follow Theseus out of the forest (4.2.203). The daze of emerging from the magical flowers spell stimulates their imagination so that they see with double[d] eye such impressions as far-off mountains turnd into clouds (4.1.191).6 Cured of the sickness of the imagination, its eye of fantasies, the lovers return to health and can put their dreams behind them (4.1.177).7 Again, vision appears as a metaphorical tool for representing confusion when imagination and love excessively tamper with each other. But the kind of blindness the lovers develop to their frantic dream experience acts

Hateful is an interesting word choice because of course the effect of the juice is to make one fall in love, a state that in its natural intensity is made to include a strong feeling like hatred but in present bewitchment decidedly leans fully into the doting. This distortion of love (or obsession) is a rather mean trick to play; hence, it is hateful (2.2.260).
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We might say here that the question of apprehending versus comprehending an image thus appears here before Theseus analyzes it in his speech.
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The lovers decision to more or less ignore their dreams contrasts starkly with Bottoms awe and delightpartially because Bottom had a very different type of mystical experience as he maintained a non-bewitched awareness despite his changed appearance.

7 as an important moment of resistance toward romantic love and imaginations uncomfortable relationshipthat they do influence each other in the romantic mind and cannot be divorced (5.1.10). The final act not only adds the finishing touches to the lovers blindness and Theseus ideas about imagination but also makes us consider imagination in a new, more self-conscious way. We see this blindness most apparently in how the final act includes a short theatrical production staged by the mechanicals, an eager clumsy group of Bottom and his actor friends. Vision appears here, making its own intertextual trouble. The myth tells the tale of two lovers, Thisby and Pyramus who are forbidden to wed by their rivalring parents. Thisby and Pyramus try to communicate with each other and see each other through a wall: Show me thy chink, Pyramus cries, to blink through with mine eyne! (5.1.177). We might even compare the dislocation and poeticization of senses in the Thisby and Pyramus play to the mixing-up of senses in Bottoms account of his rare vision and mystical experience. Thisby and Pyramus personify the wall so that it can hear moans even as its cranny enables the fearful lovers to whisper to each other (5.1. 130-135). The wall, then, is portrayed by an actor who acts at times as a mere object and at times as a personified, addressed object, through which the lovers attempt to discover information and knowledge about each other (5.1.165). Bottom tumbles his senses as if, rearranged, they might better yield knowledge or information about his mystical experience. Alternately interpreted, we might argue that the effect of the mixing-up of senses is crucial to conveying Bottoms internal disorder regarding his mystical experience. In other words, the sense and the message interpret and determine each other in and through the imagination.

8 Indeed, the fifth act highlights the lovers blindness to the expression and transportation of information and, specifically, to the ways in which they should see themselves in the scene. The characters respond by laughing at and scorning the tedious brief scene of young Pyramus/ And his love Thisby instead of recognizing themselves in a play very much related to the confusion of their encounters in the forest8 (2.2.257). This moment of a play-within-a-play also develops imagination from a dramatic element in a work (i.e. how imaginations hateful fantas[ies] contributes to the forest shenanigans) to an element we the audience must experience with more awareness (2.2.257). First, as we watch Theseus, Hippolyta, and the lovers and the others become an audience for the mechanicals play, they demonstrate to us how an audience might respond and, more specifically, how our imaginations respond to and complete a performancenamely by reacting, jeering, complaining, and offering opinions (5.1.56-7). Second, the players jumbled efforts perform what has been an essential problem for the play as a whole: the problem of maintaining identity. As if to reinforce this inability of maintaining identity, the characters in the installed play cannot maintain the illusion of the performance: Wall insists that he is one Snout by name, who present[s] a wall/ And such a wall, as I would have you think,/ That had in it a crannied hole or chink (5.1. 156-158). Lion comforts you, ladies, you, whose gentle hearts do fear/ The smallest monstrous mouse that creeps on floor, by calling attention to the fact that he, as Snug the joiner is A lion fell (5.1.219-20, 5.1.23-4). And of course it is Bottom himselfthat mystic misty-eyed mechanicalwho crowns himself director and interferes in the production to edit the proceedings, much as Oberon has done with the imaginations of the lovers: The wall, methinks, being sensible, should curse again and No, in truth, sir, he should not. Deceiving me is

9 Thisbys cue. She is to enter now, You shall see it will fall pat as I told you (5.1.182-187). The foregrounded glitches in the performances, paired with the apostrophe to the audience, brings together the way in which this installed play forces us in the audience as well as the characters to pay attention to the role of imagination in performance, on the stage and in the forest. The reactions to this installed play are key to understanding the treatment of imagination and romantic love in the comedy. At first Theseus joins Hippolyta in mocking the tangled and disordered efforts of the amateur actors (5.1.125). Halfway through the mechanicals play, however, Hippolyta sighs that the play is the silliest stuff that ever I heard, while Theseus defends the clumsy production: The best in this kind are but shadows; and the worst are no worse, if imagination amend them (213). Its no coincidence that the image of shadows appears in Theseus remarkshadows can hide as well as suggest terrors; indeed, the orchestrator of the plays primary romantic confusions is none other than the king of shadows himself, Oberon. (3.2.347). Theseus commends the viewers ability to use imagination to partake in and cope with, if not better, a poor performance, while Hippolyta, ignoring her own imagination, jumps to a rationalists indictment. They have swapped perspectives, which not only expands Theseus as a character but also challenges any possibility of a credible rationalist perspective existing undisturbed in the play. As the couple whose stability and marriage function as marks of difference in relation to the fickle and unmarried lovers, their change in perspective signals the debunking of the final barriers between sense and nonsense and fantasy that have so far enabled the play to structure and determine its dramatic and comedic treatment of love. Theseus comments on the imagination serve as a rubric for reading the play in multiple ways. We can read his comments, on the one hand, in the terms of the lovers and the role

10 imagination plays in their sensual confusions. On the other hand, we can highlight how the play understands itself and refers to itself as a play in its representations of imagination in Theseus speech and the mechanicals play, and moreover, the way that the failure in the mechanicals play signals the terms that have been underpinning the confusion of love and imagination. These two considerations come together especially in the last scene when, after the mechanicals play, Theseus hastens the lovers to go to bed, and declares that they this night have overwatched (5.1.365-8). We can read this overwatching, perhaps, as a self-knowing nod to the nimiety of eye imagery in the work, especially in the context of the lovers (5.1.368). Thereafter, when Puck calls himself and the other fairies shadows, we can read the fairies, the shadows, as part of a forceful and suggestive representation of the power of the imagination (5.1.425). As Theseus urges imagination can amend, so too does Puck tell us, the audience members, to think but this, and all is mended (5.1.425). This final associative move9 of Shakespeares joins love and imagination permanently at the hip as it also implicates us in its processes of making meaning and the airy body of the imagination that Shakespeare implies is both fertile and dangerous to all romantic attachments.

Compare: Theseus The best in this kind are but shadows; and the worst are no worse, if imagination amend them with Pucks if we shadows have offended/ Think but this, and all is mended

11 Works Cited Shakespeare, William. A Midsummer Nights Dream. New York: Signet, 1986. Print.