Love as a Human Desire in Shakespeare's "Midsummer Night's Dream"

Updated on February 22, 2018
Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing by William Blake, c. 1786
Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing by William Blake, c. 1786 | Source

Throughout history, human beings have continually displayed their need to obtain an object of their interest. This need is most often referred to as desire. Desire may be as simple wanting to have an ice cream sundae for lunch or as complicated as wanting to share a life with an indifferent person. In either of the two preceding cases, the person who desires these things may or may not be happy and content with their object of interest after they have obtained it. For example, in William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the adulesceuses, or young men in love, Demetrius and Lysander both desire the love of Hermia, who loves Lysander. In addition to their intricate love triangle, Helena, who desires the love of Demetrius, complicates matters by being an old fling of Demetrius’ and still wanting to be with him. Together, the characters in A Midsummer Night’s Dream display how trivial the human desire for love is because, as Demetrius and Helena demonstrate, once a notion of love is obtained it is easily discarded.

Discarded love is a notion presented very early in the play by Demetrius’ actions with Helena. Lysander explains:

Demetrius, I’ll avouch it to his head,

Made love to Nedar’s daughter, Helena,

And won her soul; and she, sweet lady dotes,

Devoutly dotes, dotes in idolatry,

Upon this spotted and inconstant man.

(I. i. 106-110)

Although it is unclear whether “Made love” in this context means Demetrius had sex or just a love affair with Helena, it is clear that a fling of some sort did take place between Demetrius and Helena. Furthermore, Demetrius does not try to deny that such a tryst took place. However, this explanation also illustrates how love, more specifically Demetrius’ love, is easily discarded. The circumstances regarding Demetrius and Helena’s relationship is unclear, except that he wants nothing more to do with her. In fact, at one point, Demetrius tells Helena, “I love thee not, therefore pursue me not” (II. i. 188). As shown in the former citation, Helena is deeply in love with Demetrius, yet his inconsistency has led him to spurn Helena. Demetrius’ dishonorable actions regarding love demonstrate how easily the human desire for love can be discarded once it is obtained.

Conversely, Helena had been in love with Demetrius for quite some time, yet, when he is enchanted by Oberon, Helena still does not believe that he loves her. While both Lysander and Demetrius are under the spell of “love-in-idleness” (II. i. 168) and deeply infatuated with Helena, she says, “…I am sure you hate me with your hearts./ You both are rivals, and love Hermia;/ And now both rivals, to mock Helena…” (III. ii. 154-56). After hearing Demetrius consistently reject her, Helena finds it hard to believe that he would finally declare his love for her. In addition, Lysander professing his love for her as well adds to Helena’s notion that they are playing a trick on her. It appears Helena knows and has begun to accept that they “are rivals and love Hermia” (III. Ii. 155). Maybe this misadventure in the forest was just what she needed to finally realize that Demetrius did not and would not love her, but, surprisingly, his sudden change of heart is not welcomed by her. Instead, Helena becomes quite upset. Although Helena does not understand know that Lysander and Demetrius are under a spell and Demetrius’ feelings for her are truly much more favorable now, her inability to immediately accept Demetrius’ love confession also begins to play into the notion that once human desire for love is acquired it is simply discarded.

Hermia and Helena by Washington Allston, 1818
Hermia and Helena by Washington Allston, 1818 | Source

Astonishingly, Helena is the only character in the play who attempts to pick up on this notion that love is easily discarded. When Lysander vows his love for her, Helena tells him,

These vows are Hermia’s: will you give her o’er?

Weigh oath with oath, and you will nothing weigh:

Your vows to her and me, put in two scales,

Will even weigh; and both as light as tales.

(III. ii. 130-34).

Here Helena is telling Lysander that his words have no meaning. His vows and words weigh nothing. Their meaning is lost because he had already made these vows to Hermia, and even then he may not have meant them. Although Helena clearly understands that a person’s previous actions outweigh words spoken presently, she does not apply this logic to her feelings for Demetrius. Even though he continually refuses her advances at the beginning of the play, she continues to follow him and profess her love for him. It appears that her desire for love is stronger than her logic, as is true with most human beings.

Even though the couples Lysander and Hermia and Demetrius and Helena struggled through their nighttime misadventure in the woods, by the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, they are happily married. However, while the men were enchanted by “love-in-idleness” (II. i. 168), their struggle with obtaining what they desired emphasize what people are willing to go through to get what they want. Lysander and Hermia were willing to run away to be together and Helena desperately led Demetrius in to the woods in the hopes of making him happy. People are also willing to degrade themselves to obtain their desires, the way Demetrius and Helena disgraced themselves by remaining in love with their loved one after being called a dog. In this instance, and in real life, the human desire for love is the driving force for many actions throughout life; however, as Demetrius and Helena demonstrated, once that love is obtained it can be, and often is, discarded, like a never ending game of tag.

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