‘The course of true love never did run smooth’
By what techniques does Shakespeare prove this to be the case in a Midsummer Night’s Dream?
I have been studying A Midsummer Night’s Dream and exploring how the characters within this play deal with love and the consequences resulting from falling in love. I will be answering the question asked by providing quotes and examples of Shakespeare’s technique in showing that ‘The course of true love never did run smoothly as well as providing answers as to why Shakespeare made this the case in the play.
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Shakespeare was born on the 23rd of April, in an English town called Stratford-Upon-Avon in the year 1564. He lived for 52 years, and in this time he wrote over 100 plays and sonnets, including ‘Romeo and Juliet’, ‘Macbeth’ and ‘Henry V’. He died on his birthday, St Georges Day. Another interesting thing to consider is that all of Shakespeare’s actors were men because women were not accepted on stage in the 16th century. This would seem quite strange to a modern audience as we have to imagine the lovers’ scenes being acted by men.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of Shakespeare’s comedies. The main characters in this play are four young lovers – Hermia, who loves Lysander, and Helena, who loves Demetrius. The problem is, both the men love Hermia, which is heartbreaking for Helena. Hermia’s father would rather see her marry Demetrius, but she would rather become a nun than do so. As well as this, the ‘real world’, there is another world which has the fairy King and Queen and their trains. The King and Queen are at war with each other over a young boy, who the Queen believes is hers.
In Act 1, Scene 1, Shakespeare is telling us that other people can sometimes affect the way that love runs it’s course. This is shown at the beginning of the play with Hermia and her father, Egeus. Egeus arrives at the court ‘Full of vexation’ at Hermia’s refusal to marry Demetrius. This is shown with the quote,
‘Come I, with a complaint against my child … As she is mine, I may dispose of her;’
An Elizabethan audience would be more inclined to take Egeus’ side than a modern audience, as elder people were considered knowledgeable and fathers had complete control over their daughters. In contrast, in modern society young women are not considered property anymore. However, some people in modern society would agree with Egeus’, because in some places in society arranged marriages are still common.
By accusing Lysander of winning Hermia’s affections with underhanded tricks, he feels he can demand his ‘ancient privilege’ to ‘dispose’ of his daughter, which suggests a time when a daughter’s rights would have had little importance. Egeus is too angry to think clearly, and only considers his own point of view, which is another technique that Shakespeare has used to show that love does not always go well – we feel that Hermia has been treated unfairly.
We are not given any reason to feel sympathy for the young lovers until later on in Scene 1. We see Hermia and Lysander alone together for the first time and the true love between the pair is shown with a loving banter between the two.
Shakespeare uses this technique to conjure empathy for the young couple, as their passion is being ignored because Egeus considers Demetrius ‘a worthy gentleman’. Some of the members of the Elizabethan audience would have felt empathy; possibly because they were in unhappy forced marriages themselves. Even in modern times, we feel sympathetic towards young lovers because it’s a natural instinct to want a happy ending. Shakespeare has played upon this natural instinct well, and uses this technique so we feel strong positive emotion when love finally does ‘run smooth’.
The first time we are introduced to Helena, she is distraught because she has been rejected by Demetrius for Hermia – again! Helena is insanely jealous; this is shown by her dialogue,
“Demetrius loves your fair…you sway Demetrius’ heart”
Shakespeare is showing us that there is another bumpy path love can take – it can be unrequited. This is a good way of creating sympathy for the character as most people have experienced unrequited love at some point in their lives, even if it wasn’t in quite the same way as Helena and Demetrius.
There are another set of lovers in the play – Oberon and Titania – and again, another technique used to portray a different kind of love. This time it seems to be love gone sour, as Titania and Oberon are technically married but are always apart and trying to avoid each other.
Before we actually meet the couple, we see one of Titania’s fairies and Oberon’s jester Puck have a quick conversation.
“The King doth keep his revels here tonight. Take heed the Queen come not within his sight,”
Here, Shakespeare is trying to give us a little bit of background information on the couple by telling us that the King and Queen must not meet on Oberon’s instruction. Basically, in this part of Puck’s speech, he is letting us know that the fairy King and Queen do not get on and this is another one of the techniques Shakespeare uses to show that love isn’t always perfect – perhaps even telling us that arranged marriages don’t work. Even Titania’s fairies seem to have been trained to hate anything related to Oberon when the Fairy exclaims ‘you are that shrewd and knavish sprite’ to Puck.
When Titania and Oberon enter with their trains, the first thing they do is insult each other.
“Ill met by moonlight, proud Titania!”
“What, jealous Oberon?”
This is another empathy-creating technique that Shakespeare has used. Some of the people in his audience are bound to be married and therefore have had this kind of argument. However, Titania and Oberon’s fight does seem to be really quite serious, as we find out when Titania shouts that she would not go with Oberon and share the Indian boy ‘for thy fairy kingdom!’
Later on in Scene 2, Oberon accidentally espies Demetrius rejecting Helena when Demetrius tells her ‘I do not nor I cannot love you’. Oberon has already instructed Puck to find the ‘little western flower’ ‘where the bolt of Cupid fell’ that has the power to trick Titania into falling in love, so he feels he may as well try and fix the quarrelling would-be lovers.
“He may prove more fond on her than she upon her love.”
This is Shakespeare trying to make us think that the involvement of others can often be a good thing. However, we know that something will go wrong because it often does at this point in the story-line of traditional fairy-tales. Shakespeare uses the basic plot outline of a fairy-tale so we always know what’s coming, yet he does this with an element of surprise so we do not know exactly how Puck is going to make things go wrong at this point.
Further on in the story, we see Puck putting the juice of the flower in Lysander’s eyes instead of Demetrius’. This is another one of Shakespeare’s almost un-noticeable tricks showing us the way love works. In this scene, Shakespeare is ultimately trying to tell us again that the involvement of other people often causes love to go wrong and the path of true love to become bumpy.
“Who is here? … This is he my master said, despisï¿½d the Athenian maid;”
It is interesting how easily, not just in this scene, Lysander and Demetrius’ are mistaken for each other. This could be another technique that Shakespeare uses to tell us about love, possibly saying that love is random rather than following a set of rules, for if it was the latter Hermia could love Demetrius and make her father happy.
The way that Shakespeare makes the two men, and indeed the two women, easily confusable is another contribution to the audience being told that love is never smooth; he is telling us of love’s fickle nature.
Also interesting to consider is the way that, in Scene 3 of Act 2, Puck so easily sorts out the lovers and the way that it is so quickly and simply changed from both the men loving Hermia to both loving Helena. This is another part of the technique that Shakespeare uses to show us that love is blind. The fact that the two females are so easily mistaken for each other, with the help of the magic flower, is another point that Shakespeare puts forward to support the theory that love can pick anyone, no matter how similar the prospective lovers maybe.
Shakespeare, especially in the scenes with Titania and Bottom, tries to put forward the idea that it is not actually pre-destined who we fall in love with, but actually to do with people in a different world, either playing tricks on us or trying to help.
When Titania wakes up and sees Bottom, with his asses head, she instantly falls in love with him because of the powerful flower. This is one of the more funny scenes in the play because Shakespeare portrays Titania as a sophisticated and independent woman, but she falls in love with this strange, clumsy creature – a man with an asses head.
“What angel wakes me from my flowery bed?”
Again, Shakespeare is telling us that love is fickle and therefore doesn’t always go according to plan. The main theme throughout the book is love going wrong, and it seems to get worse from the moment Hermia utters the words “the course of true love never did run smooth”, almost as if she’s cursed the other lovers in the play just by saying these words.
There is another sort of love to consider within this play; brotherly, sisterly or friendly love. There are several instances of this in the play, between Hermia, Helena, Demetrius and Lysander.
“O, is all forgot? All schooldays’ friendship, childhood innocence?”
Shakespeare uses the romantic love going wrong parallel with the friendship going wrong. As shown in this quote, Helena and Hermia have been lifelong friends, yet Hermia feels that ‘it seems that you [Helena] scorn me’, and the rivalry is only there because of Demetrius and Lysander.
This is shown again when Lysander challenges Demetrius to ‘withdraw [his sword], and prove’ his love to Helena. This all erupts into a proposed fight between the two males and an argument between the two girls;
“You juggler, you canker-blossom, you thief of love!”
“Fie, fie, you counterfeit, you puppet, you!”
After Helena and Hermia have their argument, the men go off ‘cheek by jowl’ to have a fight over who loves Helena more. This is another technique that Shakespeare uses to show us that love can be superficial and often be blown out of proportion, which adds to a growing suspicion throughout the play that love is a bad thing, especially when it doesn’t ‘run smooth’.
Another instance in which Shakespeare shows us the way love works is in the workmen’s production of Pyramus and Thisbe. This is very common in Greek plays, as they often have a play within a play, and Shakespeare often refers back to Greek works in all of his plays. Although Shakespeare hasn’t technically written it into A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a romance, Pyramus and Thisbe are lovers kept apart with an interfering wall – another pair of lovers kept apart!
“Most radiant Thisbe, most lily-white of hue, of colour like the red rose on triumphant briar,”
Shakespeare even brings love into his comedic scenes. Even the workmen’s production seems to follow the basic plot of each and every one of the lovers in the play, that being love going wrong.
The first pair of lovers to be joined in ‘amity’ are Titania and Oberon. The fairy couple seems to be setting the scene for all the other lovers to sort out their problems – with a little help from Puck and the magic flower – and figure out what true love is and if it was worth all the trouble.
“Come, my Queen, take hands with me, and rock the ground whereon these sleepers be.”
Oberon calls the strong-minded Queen his, which before the episode with Bottom would probably have caused the Titania anger, but now Shakespeare seems to be telling us that she and Oberon are the King and Queen of the fairies and need to set an example.
Another message about love that Shakespeare seems to be sending is one that love does run smooth, but only for people at the top of the hierarchal system. He never shows Hippolyta and Theseus arguing or having any problems. When Shakespeare was writing plays, he always had to make sure that nothing within his writing would offend the current monarch, which is reflected in his choice to make Hippolyta and Theseus the un-faltering backbone of the whole story – strong and reliable.
Finally, with the wedding scene, all the lovers come to be joined. Shakespeare could be trying to tell us that although true love doesn’t run smooth if it is true love then you will always have a happy ending.
“Here come the lovers, full of joy and mirth. Joy, gentle friends, joy and fresh days of love accompany your hearts.”
This seems to be Shakespeare’s way of telling us (through Theseus) that the more confusion and suffering you are put through, the happier you will be when it all works out.
In conclusion, I think that although Shakespeare doesn’t always make it obvious that he is giving us the message that ‘The course of true love never did run smooth’, he shows us this in several different ways. The most obvious technique he uses is getting other people getting involved who shouldn’t be. He uses this to show us that love isn’t always seen as a good thing in the eyes of other people, for example, Hermia falling in love with someone her father doesn’t want her to marry.
He also shows us the pain of unrequited love using Helena and Demetrius, which shows us that we can’t choose who we love. Another way he shows us this is by subtly telling us, with the use of the fairy story-line, that an un-attached world controls our love life and there isn’t anything we can do about it, for love shall always take the most difficult path.
The last and maybe most important technique he uses is the way that all of the lovers in this play seem to have a great many things in common. This technique is used throughout the play and seems to be Shakespeare’s way of telling us that the course of true love is always the same, a mirror image of all the love stories since pre-history. The techniques that Shakespeare uses are often unnoticeable, but all of them contribute to the general idea that love is awkward, fickle and unreliable, although Shakespeare does seem to be a believer that it will all work out in the end, as he shows us with the triple wedding ceremony as the finale of the play.
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