Having studied William Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, it is evident that a significant theme within this comedy is that of transformation. Being a key theme, transformation is mentioned right away in the beginning of the play with references to the moon. The moon is an ideal example of transformation due to its constantly changing nature. It goes through phases, in which it is seen in a different form and also controls the fluctuations of the tide. Both these things change or transform. Other examples of transformation would be the transformation of Bottom’s head into an ass’s head and Titania’s maternal love of the Indian boy into the lust for Bottom. There are many forms of transformation but I will be focusing on the transforming power of love
Transformation can instantly be noted in Act 1, Scene 1, where Shakespeare uses Theseus and Hippolyta to start the play. Their relationship has transformed the most, although it does not happen during the actual play. Before they became lovers, Theseus and Hippolyta, leaders of the Athenians and the Amazons respectively, were bitter enemies. However, Theseus “wooed” her with his sword and “won” her love with the injuries he inflicted on her. Having beaten her in battle, Theseus has fallen deeply in love with Hipployta, and the feeling is reciprocated. The play begins with them in the midst of conversing about their feelings regarding the forthcoming wedding. The fact that Theseus fought Hippolyta and now, without explanation he loves her introduces the idea that love is an irrational force and can quickly change one’s attitudes. It also foreshadows the movement of the story from antagonism to harmony.
Egeus, whose intervention introduces the plot of the young lovers, is a typical figure of comedy. He is the angry father who obstructs the course of true love and it is his entrance that changes the relaxed and calm atmosphere into one that is tension filled. Egeus’s reason for entering the stage so abruptly is his “vexation” against his daughter Hermia. Hermia has been “bewitched” from a loyal and obedient daughter into “stubborn harshness”. This is due to her love for Lysander, rather than Demetrius, to whom Egeus wants her to marry.
The transformation of Hermia from a demure and loyal daughter into an outspoken bold young woman, who stands up to the Duke, is an example of the power of Love. In such a patriarchal society, such disobedience by women would lead to exile or death. However, the Duke is fully aware of the irrational and transforming power of love and overlooks such behaviour. Although Theseus is obliged to support Egeus’s rights as a father, he speaks gently to Hermia, addressing her as “fair maid”. Hermia’s abrupt refutation to his observation that Demetrius is a “worthy gentleman” is not reprimanded but agreed upon. Theseus gives her four days to reach a final decision and allows her the further option of becoming a nun. It is in keeping with his own desire for the “nuptial hour”, that he does not make the celibate life sound attractive (the words “shady… barren… faint… cold… fruitless” and “thorn” are hardly inviting)!
From this, it is evident that Hermia’s transformation is due to her love of Lysander. Her childhood companion, Helena, is also transformed due to love, or rather the lack of it. She “devoutly dotes, dotes in idolatry” on Demetrius with whom she had a brief affair. While we are meant to feel sympathetic to the plights of the young lovers, their references to example of thwarted love and how the “course of true love never did run smooth” distances us from having a strong involvement in their feelings. A similar effect is achieved through Shakespeare’s use of balanced couplets which, after Helena’s arrival, are shared between the two women.
“The more I hate, the more he follows me.
“The more I love, the more he hateth me.” (Act 1; Scene 1; lines 198-99)
The muted conflict between these two women suggests the jealousy and rivalry which will erupt in Act 3. The irrational force of love which influences her rash decision to tell Demetrius of “fair Hermia’s flight”, reinforces the point and leaves us wondering what will happen as a consequence.
Another instance of transformation that can be seen within the play is the change caused to the Earth by the enmity between Oberon and Titania, king and queen of the fairies respectively. They are husband and wife, but have fallen out over the custody of a young Indian boy. Titania’s maternal love for the boy surpasses her love for her husband and so she does not hand him over to Oberon as his “henchman”. The fallout between Oberon and Titania has affected the climate, causing the winds to suck up the “contagious fogs” from the sea. Rivers have “overborne their continents”, and the farmer has “lost his sweat, and the green corn”. Here Titania laments that their quarrel has affected the seasons causing floods, cold and famine, which have damaged life for human beings.
Titania’s long speech beginning: “these are the forgeries of jealousy” is a striking piece of poetry which would certainly be out of place in the mouth of any of the merely mortal characters in the play. Shakespeare creates a vivid impression of the countryside through a series of descriptions, and the way the winds, rivers, seasons and moon are personified, suggest the fairies’ supernatural intimacy with the forces of nature.
Another thing that we see transformed in the play is the way the characters speak. Shakespeare has used the language of the characters’ speech to portray their foolishness due to being so love struck. Theseus, Hippolyta, Hermia, Lysander, Demetrius and Helena are all nobles. However, the mature lovers, Theseus and Hippolyta, talk in a more sedate manner with no hyperbole or stichomythia. The lovers, especially Helena and Hermia, continuously use stichomythia which can be seen during their dialogue when Helena is anguished that Demetrius has eyes only for Hermia, no matter how he is spurned.
“I give him curses; yet he gives me love.
O that my prayers could such affection move” (Act 1; Scene 1; Lines 196-197)
Stichomythia is “dramatic dialogue, as in a Greek play, characterized by brief exchanges between two characters, each of whom usually speaks in one line of verse during a scene of intense emotion or strong argumentation”. Stichomythia is Shakespeare’s way of making fun of the lovers and how they are blinded and overtaken by their love.
A further instance of transformation is the change in Helena’s character. Helena who, along with Hermia, is considered to be one of the most beautiful women in Athens, changes from a self-confident, proud young woman, into a servile almost masochistic being. She insists that Demetrius treat her as a “spaniel”, to “spurn… strike… neglect… lose” her as long as she is allowed to follow him and look upon his countenance.
“What worser place can I beg in your love
(And yet a place of high respect with me)
Than to be used as you use your dog?” (Act 2; Scene 1; Lines 208-210)
Helena’s statement above shows how desperate she has become to stay close to him. Her feeling of individuality has completely diminished and has become totally dependant on the presence of Demetrius. This is once more Shakespeare’s way of poking fun at the way the young couples have let themselves get swept away by their love, or infatuation in Helena’s case.
We need to remember that in this fantastic comedy, Shakespeare uses more than just love as a means of transformation. His use of the fairies is central to the theme of transformation as well. It is due to the fairies that Demetrius’s lust for Hermia is transformed into love for Helena. It is the fairies who provide such comic instances within the play.
The transformation of Bottom’s head into that of an ass’s is Puck’s idea of a joke, but it is also in accordance with Oberon’s wish to discipline his wife, Titania, for not giving him the changeling Indian boy that he so wished to be his “henchman”.
The juice of the “western flower”, “purple with love’s wound”, is used by Oberon to transform a sleeping Titania so that she wakes to fall passionately in love when “some vile thing is near”. Puck’s practical joke on the “hempen homespuns” falls neatly into place with Oberon’s plan. Shakespeare sets the Rude Mechanical’s rehearsal in the clearing within which Titania is alone sleeping under the influence of the love juice. This could be Shakespeare’s use of dramatic irony. On stage, Titania may be lifted above the heads of the Rude Mechanicals; this portrays the dramatic irony that Shakespeare is trying to convey to the fullest.
The use of the love juice causes Titania’s maternal love for the Indian boy that she has taken under her wing due to his mother, who was a “votress” of her “order”, to transform into lust for Bottom with the “vile” ass’s head. The woman who would often sit by Titania’s side gossiping and laughing at the sails “grow big bellied with the wanton wind”, was someone much loved by Titania. Having died after giving birth to a baby boy, Titania has taken it upon herself to care for the little boy in the memory of his mother.
However, Oberon wishes to punish Titania for her disobedience to him, and causes her to fall passionately in love with Nick Bottom. Her lust for Bottom surpasses her love for the Indian boy which the “fairly land” could not buy. As a result, the responsibility she bears regarding the boy seems insignificant to her infatuation with Bottom. She then hands over the young Indian boy, without hesitation when asked by Oberon. This is an example of Shakespeare trying to show how love can make someone act in the most irrational or foolish manner, which is in no way customary to their character.
In conclusion, it can be seen that love plays a major role in the development of the plot in the play. Love is such a powerful emotion that Theseus, who himself has fallen in love with his former enemy, can relate to the young lovers’ apparent dilemma in trying to explain their presence in the woods on the morning of the royal wedding. So much so, that Theseus “overbears” Egeus’s will to “beg the law” upon Lysander for trying to run away with Hermia. This shows how the power of love, both irrational and rational, in the case of the mature lovers, can put a change to laws, centuries old.
Therefore, in my opinion, it can be said that transformation is a significant theme within the play, and its presentation is widespread throughout the comedy. Without transformation, the play may not have turned out to be a comedy, but rather a tragedy leading to the deaths of the lovers, Lysander and Hermia, for trying to elope and breaking the “ancient privilege of Athens”.