The Perception of Lovers- William Shakespeare’s "A Midsummer Night’s Dream" and Henrik Ibsen's "A Doll House"

Updated on January 8, 2014

Romantic notions of love have existed throughout history in all societies. In some cultures, love is meant to grow between spouses who first meet the same day they get married; in other cultures, love is meant to grow over time until both partners decide to spend their lives together and then they marry. William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll House are two plays that portray love and lover’s perception in very different ways. A Midsummer Night’s Dream ends with the marriage ceremony of two couples deeply in love while A Doll House ends in the ending of a marriage that had previously appeared to be happy and healthy. These concepts of marriage beg the question, “How do loving couples view each other?” By taking a deeper look into the main couples in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and A Doll House, it is evident that love and the lovers’ perceptions can be altered by outside sources throughout the duration of the relationship.

In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hermia and Lysander begin and end the play in love; however, their love for each other is altered by the use of Oberon’s enchanting love “juice” (Shakespeare, II, 1, 170). In the beginning, after Theseus makes his ruling, Lysander says, “How now, my love! Why is your cheek so pale?/ How change the roses there do fade so fast?” (Shakespeare, I, 1, 128-9). His love for Hermia is apparent in his loving words. He realizes she is feeling badly about the ruling before she even has time to say anything. Therefore, his sincerity in regards to his feelings for her is true. Hermia also declares her love for Lysander by standing up for him in court. Later she refers to Lysander as “my Lysander” (Shakespeare, I, 1, 217), “good Lysander” (Shakespeare, II, 2, 43), and “sweet love” (Shakespeare, III, 2, 263). Hermia’s pet names for Lysander indicate her affection for him and allow insight into their personal relationship. Lysander does not object to being called these names because he knows they are Hermia’s way of showing him that she truly cares for him. By the end of the play, when they wake up in the morning, they believe the things that happened the night before was just a dream (Shakespeare, IV, 1, 23-4) and the love Hermia and Lysander share continues into marriage. Although they only exchange words of love, their perception of each other appears to be clear because they still maintain desire to marry one another.

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

Also in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Helena and Demetrius end the play happily married; however, their marriage is a farce brought forth by Oberon’s love “juice”. Demetrius’ opinion of love is obviously variable because, in the first act, Lysander calls Demetrius an “inconstant man” (Shakespeare, I, 1, 110) since he used to love Helena but Demetrius has petitioned Hermia’s father for her hand in marriage. Furthermore, whether or not Demetrius actually loves Hermia can be debated. In the first act, he simply calls her “sweet Hermia” (Shakespeare, I, 1, 91) and makes no confession of his love for her. In fact, it is not until the third act that he even casually mentions loving Hermia (Shakespeare, III, 2, 43). This is when he is enchanted by the love “juice” to love Helena. After the “juice” is applied to his eyelids, Demetrius says, “O Helen, goddess, nymph, perfect, divine!/ To what, my love, shall I compare thine eyne?” (Shakespeare, III, 2, 137-8). The “juice” has altered his perception of Helena to the extent that instead of loathing her, he loves her. Helena, on the other hand, has a very concrete notion of what she thinks love is from the very beginning. She says, “Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind,/ And therefore is wing’d Cupid painted blind” (Shakespeare, I, 1, 234-35). Here it is obvious that Helena’s notion of love and her subsequent love for Demetrius are true. She is even willing to be equated as his spurned, beaten, neglected “spaniel” (Shakespeare, II, 1, 203-6). By the end of the play, Demetrius announces to all that “The object and the pleasure of mine eye,/ is only Helena” (Shakespeare, IV, 1, 164-5). Then Helena, thinking it is too good to be true, says, “I have found Demetrius like a jewel,/ mine own, and not mine own” (Shakespeare, IV, 1, 185-6). They are married shortly after but Demetrius’ perception of Helena and his love for her remain distorted even after the play ends. Even though Helena truly loves Demetrius, he only loves her because he has been magically enchanted to believe he honestly loves her. However, even though Demetrius is enchanted, they know the good and the bad side of each other. Helena knows how much Demetrius can hurt her and Demetrius knows all of Helena’s flaws. Until the end of the play, their honesty shows that they can still maintain a happy marriage, even if Demetrius is enchanted.

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

A Doll House, on the other hand, represents a marriage in which the true, previously unknown character of both Nora and Torvald ultimately ends the marriage. In the beginning, Nora and Torvald are happily married in their ignorance; however, with Krogstad threatening to tell the truth, “Nora must continually play a desperate game of hide-and-seek with Toryaid to prevent him from discovering that she did not, in fact, receive the money for his convalescence from her father, but rather ‘under bordet’ from Nils Krogstad” (Drake). Nora’s dilemma ultimately begins increasing her awareness of the charade that her marriage is until Torvald finally finds out about the money she borrowed. At this time, Nora decides they should talk and she confides, “In eight whole years…we’ve never exchanged a serious word on any serious thing” (Isben, 1178). It is obvious from this statement that having an actual conversation to hear each other’s thoughts and opinions was never a priority. Yet, how can one know the true character of a person without conversing frequently? Nora comes to realize this too when she says, “I’ve been living here with a stranger, and that I’d even conceived three children” (Ibsen, 1181). Furthermore, as critic Yuehua Guo has said, “It’s obvious that Torvald does not really know Nora or even really care to know her.” This is when the veil is lifted. Nora’s perception is no longer tainted by love. In fact, the love she had for Torvald is gone (Isben, 1180) and once Nora’s veil had been lifted there was no going back. The happy doll house she and her family happily lived in for years ended up being an illusion and the reality is that, since she accepts her ignorance and now seeks knowledge, she does not belong there anymore. Since Torvald and, especially, Nora became aware of the truth behind their marriage, it had to end.

A Doll House brings forth the notion that even if love can be found and marriage ultimately unites both people, there is still a chance that the perception of love in the relationship can be altered or it may never have existed in the first place. Love can make a person unaware of the true nature of their relationship, just like Demetrius’ deceptive love for Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. When discussing love in A Midsummer Night’s Dream critic David Mikics thinks, “Shakespeare enacts love’s illusions in their most extreme form in order to dispel them.” This thought challenges the happiness shared between Hermia and Lysander and Helena and Demetrius because, at one point or another in the play, the love these couples share for each other is challenged. While Lysander’s love for Hermia is tested only through the use of Oberon’s love “juice”, Demetrius’ love for Helena only exists because of the love “juice.” Therefore, if one can love another only through the use of such devices, can the love between Demetrius and Helena be considered true love? If not, can Nora’s marriage in A Doll House be considered happy in the beginning, when she was naïve to her husband’s true character? These questions bring forth a deeper underlying dilemma in many marriages, the notion that love in a relationship is based on the lover’s perception that can often be unclear; consequently, in any relationship, can the true nature of either spouse truly be known to the other? This final question does not have a definitive answer but merely asking it and pondering it will lead one to question the idealistic notions that surround the idea of romantic love that permeates societies.

Works Cited

Drake, David B. "Ibsen's A Doll House." Explicator 53.1 (1994): 32. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 15 Nov. 2010.

Guo, Yuehua. "Gender Struggle over Ideological Power in Ibsen's A Doll's House." Canadian Social Science 5.1 (2009): 79-87. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 15 Nov. 2010.

Ibsen, Henrik. “A Doll House.” The Norton Introduction to Literature. Ed. Allison Booth and Kelly J. Mays. 10th ed. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2010. 1133-82. Print.

Mikics, David. "Poetry and politics in A Midsummer Night's Dream." Raritan 18.2 (1998): 99. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 14 Nov. 2010.

Shakespeare, William. “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” The Norton Introduction to Literature. Ed. Allison Booth and Kelly J. Mays. 10th ed. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2010. 1251-1304. Print.

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