Lessons of the Darkness in A Midsummer Night’s Dream
The physical darkness impairs normal vision: the dark is intense enough for characters to fear being alone. Helena cries out to Demetrius not to abandon her “darkling,” or in the dark (2.2 l. 93). Hermia seems certain that her abandonment in the dark by Lysander could lead to her death: “Speak, of all loves. I swoon almost with fear. / No? Then I well perceive you are not nigh. / Either death or you I’ll find immediately” (2.2. ll. 160-2). The dark forest is far from hospitable to Hermia’s imagination, but Shakespeare’s night actually protects and instructs the lovers. Hermia’s line give a clue to how they must learn to cope without their eyes: she does not see that Lysander is not near, but rather “perceives”-her hearing is the sense on which she comes to depend. Hearing and sight operate quite differently: while sight can be controlling (consider Foucault’s panopticon, and the use of observation as power), listening requires openness. The temporal element of listening necessitates patience (Tu Wei-ming, 2/11/99). Hermia is able to find her lover eventually by using her hearing to its full potential:
Dark night, that from the eye his function takes,
The ear more quick of apprehension makes.
Wherein it doth impair the seeing sense,
It pays the hearing double recompense.
Thou art not by mine eye, Lysander, found;
Mine ear, I thank it, brought me to thy sound. (3.2 ll. 178-183)
Here is the power of night to transform the gaze. The eye’s power is taken, but the ear’s is augmented. This Hermia seems far more confident than the Hermia of only a few scenes ago, who was certain she would perish without her lover. She speaks with a kind of triumph about her own ability to improvise: her ear paid “double recompense” has been more than adequate to the task. The night “pays,” rewards, gives gifts in place of what it takes away. Hermia, thrilled to see her lover and to discover her own ability to improvise, goes so far as to thank her own ear. Relying on different kinds of perception leads Hermia to Lysander, just as the night world brings all four lovers to a truer understanding of themselves and their loves, making possible a happy ending for everyone by the end of the play.
In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the nighttime forest, by disrupting and transforming vision, forces introspection and improvisation that help the four lovers on their way to self-understanding.