In the play A Midsummer Night's Dream by William Shakespeare, an overall motif is rule and misrule. Rule and misrule stems from the theme that love makes people foolish and not themselves. One of the ways Shakespeare uses the motif is by making the setting a place where and time when the characters become the opposite of their natural selves. The decisions that the characters choose are impulsive and done without much thought.
The main settings of the play are the forest of Athens, which is the home of the fairies, and the city of Athens. The fairies, King Oberon and Queen Titania, are the whimsical, free-living creatures that are juxtaposed with the rigid and bureaucratic king and queen-to-be of Athens, Theseus and Hippolyta. At first glance one may think that the two settings, the pastoral and irrational versus the urban and rational, are definite opposites. However, after further examination one can see that the seemingly rational urban lifestyle is just as irrational as the magical forest. King Theseus is one who follows the rules and makes Hermia marry someone other than her true love because her father doesn’t approve. King Oberon, on the other hand, embodies the true meaning of Midsummer and the emotions that transform a human being into a more mischievous and impetuous person. King Oberon enjoys seeing his wife, Titania, fall in love with a donkey, while fighting over a trivial possession. Both the kings force love on another character, whether it is through rational rules or through the irrational use of a magic flower. In fact, in some productions of the play the same actors play King Oberon and Theseus and Queen Titania and Hippolyta. This shows that even though the ruling couples may seem different, they actually have the same characteristics and are meant to portray the same idea, that creatures can be foolish and love makes them particularly so. By placing the two settings in two opposite places, real and imaginary, Shakespeare shows that not only can one be irrational in the imaginary world but also in the real world. In addition, Puck says in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, “Oh lord what fools these mortals be.” By having Puck, who himself is a mischievous fairy, say these words, Shakespeare again makes his point that the real and imaginary are interchangeable because irrationality is a part of both types of worlds.
The timing of the play is set at a midsummer night. Midsummer is a time when many people lose their routines and rules; night is a time when there is darkness and shadows. The timing of midsummer, the heat and the relaxation, creates the feeling that one should engage in careless and spontaneous actions. Whereas during the winter one feels more contained and actions feel more controlled and calculated, midsummer is the perfect time for love because it allows one to step outside his comfort zone and become a more relaxed and carefree person. Everyone in the play relaxes or defies rules, so that there is confusion and chaos. In the play forbidden lovers, Hermia and Lysander, decide to run away from the rational world and head off into the magical side of the forest spontaneously. Hermia and Lysander needed to run away from the rules because Hermia would be forced to marry Demetrius. Another character who didn’t follow rules is Oberon. King Oberon didn’t like the limitations and restrictions that his wife, Titania, set about a slave child. Oberon loses his control and makes his wife fall in love with a man with a donkey’s head. Puck is also a careless character who is characterized as the jester of the play. Puck’s decisions are always causing the characters confusion and creates the entertaining misrule of the play. Puck is told to put the magic flower on Demetrius’s eyes so he will fall in love with Helena, who is madly in love with Demetrius. But Puck puts the magic flower on Lysander and creates the first major confusion and misrule.
The night setting of the play also facilitates the foolish act of falling in love. Night is the time when lovers sneak out, become crazy and naive. The moon is constantly used in A Midsummer Night’s Dream to describe the night time. The moon is just like characters: it is quickly changing and ephemeral. In Elizabethan time the moon was said to influence emotions and self-image. This supports the play’s theme very well because the misrule, which occurs at night, changes the behavior and emotions of many of the characters. The moon made each character act like a lunatic, a word with a Latin root meaning moon and which shows the Elizabethan idea that the moon alters one’s emotions in a drastic way. Helena, in the beginning of the play, portrays the first sign of strong and sad emotions towards herself. Helena’s one true love shows his love towards Hermia. Helena would go to any length to have any contact with Demetrius. Helena is so madly in love that even talking to Demetrius about his true love excites Helena:
I will go tell him of fair Hermia’s flight.
Then to the wood will he tomorrow night,
Pursue her. And for this intelligence
If I have thanks, it is a dear expense.
But herein mean I to enrich my pain,
To have his sight thither and back again. (Act I)
Hermia, who was once loved by Lysander is shocked when Lysander has now professed his love for Helena, because he was showered with the magic flower. Lysander says, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, “Content with Hermia? No. I do repent,/The tedious minutes I with her have spent./Not Hermia but Helena I love.” Hermia begins to feel badly about herself and questions the love that Lysander had for her in the first place:
What, can you do me greater harm than hate?
Hate me? Wherefore? O me! What news, my love?
Am not I Hermia? Are not you Lysander?
I am as fair now as I was erewhile.
Since night you loved me. Yet since night you left me.
Why then, you left me—Oh, the gods forbid!—In earnest, shall I say?
Here Lysander is acting crazy and foolish because his true love from the beginning of the play, the person that he risked his life for and ran away with, is now repulsive to him. The flower juice Puck dribbled into his eyes makes Lysander be mad for Helena. Lysander’s rejection of Hermia then makes Hermia mad, since she is beside herself with anxiety over the loss of his love.
Shakespeare’s characters in A Midsummer Night’s Dream exemplify the motif of being foolishly in love. The characters are drawn in by the aspect of the magical side of love, which then transforms them. Shakespeare titled the play A Midsummer Night’s Dream, to show the influence that a time and day have on a person’s character, but his real intent may have been to show that no matter time, day or place, man will always be foolish about love.