People think of A Midsummer Night’s Dream as light-hearted and funny, full of amusing fairy high jinks, enchantments, and moonlight romance. And indeed, fairies cavort, dance and sing throughout the play and cast magic spells on young lovers forcing them to roam about aimlessly and to engage in absurd antics. That is, they behave irrationally and the audience laughs. However, a deep ironic contrast exists between manner and matter, between style and content, between the way people are behaving and what the words are actually saying. A close reading reveals that most of the laughs are generated by someone’s pain or humiliation. The superficially amusing predicaments of the young lovers, as well as that of the Fairy Queen Titania, and her rude swain Bottom, are not entirely the result of coincidence or human folly but are instigated by the King of the Fairies, Oberon, and his minion Puck through careless error and motives of vengeance and sadistic pleasure (III, ii, 363. All references are from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Oxford University Press, ed. Peter Holland, 1994).
While carrying out Oberon’s originally well-intentioned instructions to relieve Helena’s distress at Demetrius’ desertion, Puck mistakenly casts a spell on Lysander rather than Demetrius, which sets off an unintended series of mishaps, but instead of feeling remorse, he gleefully enjoys the characters’ discomfiture resulting from his error. Furthermore, during a marital dispute Oberon deliberately humiliates Titania to satisfy his pride. These fairies are not really charming or innocent, nor are their pranks harmless: they are called practical jokes and are quite cruel.
Although the young men seem to be the principal victim because the magic juice is poured on their eyelids and they react in an outlandish fashion, the jokes affecting the young lovers are played mostly at the expense of the women, who are definitely the weaker sex in this play, both physically and socially. They have no power, no autonomy. Hippolyta, Titania and Thisbe are also female victims, the first two of dominance by virtue of their male partners and the latter by an autocratic father.
When Demetrius and Lysander profess their ardor, they do not dwell on feelings of unrequited love; neither acts the lovelorn swain. Instead, rivalry transforms their tender feelings into hostility, anger and aggression directed at each other. They spend far more time competing with each other than doting on the women (I, i, 91-94; III, ii, 252-56). Furthermore, their wooing relies on clichés of extravagant flattery and witty compliments rather than spontaneous, heartfelt sentiment (II, ii, 119-28; III, ii, 60-61, 122-27). Of the two, Lysander seems more tender hearted in the earlier scenes with Hermia (I, i, 128-35; II, ii, 53-58), but is far more insulting and brutal in his rejection of her than Demetrius is of Helena (III, ii, 260-61, 263-64). Because of their harsh treatment of the women and because they do not reveal much emotional vulnerability, they forfeit the audience’s sympathy. The knowledge that their plight is the result of Puck’s meddling also encourages audience detachment and permits laughter.
Of the four principals,…