Seeing Without Reason: Vision in A Midsummer Night’s Dream
In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, William Shakespeare plays with ideas of sight and reality. Sight, eyes, and the gaze become crucial themes in this seemingly light-hearted play. They appear constantly in the language of all of the characters, beyond the obvious role in the power of the magic potion. The fact that the play takes place at night is also a crucial aspect of the prevalence of vision as a theme. Here, it is the reduced vision, the effect of darkness, that the characters must endure. This night setting creates a world of transformation and unrealistic change. Even when vision goes seemingly unhampered, in the daylight scenes in the wood, it is deluded by a magic potion. Essentially, there is never pure sight. Warped vision poses an especially serious problem in the play because Shakespeare shows us the folly of characters who trust their eyes too dearly, without the capacity to judge what they see. In a space where sight reigns above reason, chaos readily ensues. This is a world where minds are controlled by eyes, and therefore inadequate in perception. The final solution is to find a compromise between the world of reason, and the world of sensory perception.
Sight is a theme alluded to constantly in the details of Shakespeare’s language. Descriptions of love are often steeped in references to sight. When Hermia describes her love for Lysander, she claims that “Before the time I did Lysander see,/Seem’d Athens as a paradise to me,” (I.i, ll.204-205) therefore placing all the impetus of her emotion in the power of her eyes. Helena also uses this sight-terminology when she discussed her feelings for Demetrius: “It is not night when I do see your face,/Therefore I think I am not in the night/…How can it be said I am alone,/When all the world is here to look on me?” (II.i, ll.221-222, 225-226). Demetrius says “The object and the pleasure of mine eye/Is only Helena,” (IV.i, ll.170-171) when he realizes that he loves her. Eyes seem to be a favorite topic for many of the characters, appearing enough to betray a conscious choice by Shakespeare. In referring to Hermia’s beauty, her eyes are constantly the subject of both praise and jealousy. Helena complains “Happy is Hermia, wheresoe’er she lies,/For she hath blessed and attractive eyes./How came her eyes so bright? Not with salt tears;/If so, my eyes are oft’ner wash’d than hers” (II.ii, ll.90-93). Theseus repeats such references in his speechifying: “…The lover, all as frantic,/Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt./The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,/Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven” (V.i, ll.10-13). This is one of many quotations discussing the gaze, and therefore yet another example of Shakespeare’s careful inclusion of this specific subject.
The plot is essentially driven by the sight theme. The narrative is constructed by the consequences of displacing, confusing, and playing with vision. Oberon sets the story in motion by meddling with the eyes of Titania and Lysander. The magic potion that creates all of the confusion (and therefore action) of the play because when “on sleeping eyelids laid/[it] will make a man or woman madly dote/Upon the next live creature that it sees” (II.i, ll.170-173). The properties of this potion create obvious potential for references to eyes and sight, creating a plot that dwells upon several sets of eyelids. But the question of vision is not simply answered by the magic potion. Oberon is jealous in the first place because he trusts what he sees more than what he hears. Puck warns a fairy to “Take heed the Queen come not within his sight;/For Oberon is passing fell and wrath,/Because that she as her attendant hath/A lovely boy stolen from an Indian king” (II.i, ll.19-22). Titania explains that she is raising the boy out of love for an old friend. But because Oberon sees Titania with a beautiful young boy, he ignores the reason behind it, and bases his jealousy on what he sees before him. Titania is doting on someone. Reason is insignificant. The sight alone is worthy of revenge for him.
Shakespeare is careful to show us the danger in basing decision on sight alone. Part of the reign of vision in the events of play is its capacity for mistake when removed from reason. Just as Oberon trusts his mistaken sight with Titania’s changeling, he assumes Puck can find Demetrius based on how he looks. Puck is told to assume Demetrius’ identity based solely on “the Athenian garments he hath on” (II.ii, l.264). Puck indeed sees a set of Athenian garments and distributes the potion, but he chooses the wrong person because his only guide is what he sees. Again, the plot is driven by an assumption that is misplaced because it is based on nothing but sight. It is clear that Shakespeare sees danger in a world where reason, and words, are eclipsed by pure vision. The decisions made by Oberon stand to prove this point, and they also happen to drive the plot of the play. They are part of the world of magic and fantasy, where nothing beyond sensory reaction is considered, and frantic consequences thus ensue.
Oberon is not the only character that affects the plot of the play in terms of sight. The four human characters all make the decision to flee Athens by night, therefore consciously entering into a half-lit world where vision is certainly reduced. Oberon puts it best when he calls his endeavors “night-rule about this haunted grove” (III.ii, l.5), alluding to the mysterious quality of the forest at night. The wood becomes associated with darkness, and Athens with light. Helena cries “O weary night, O long and tedious night,/Abate thy hours! Shine, comforts, from the east,/That I may back to Athens by daylight” (III.iii, ll.431-433). Athens is also representative of reason, of law. Lysander suggests the wood because “…to that place the sharp Athenian law/Cannot pursue us” (I.i, l.62-63). Oberon sees this dichotomy too, as he predicts that when his victims all awake, they will “all to Athens back again repair/And think no more of this nights accidents/But as the fierce vexation of a dream” (IV.i, ll.66-68). Athens, the realm of justice and reason, will allow the characters to think about and categorize all of the strange sights they’ve seen in the forest. Their judgement will allow them to call this “dream”. The wood is thus embraced once more as a free space, where reason is suspended. This is certainly a point of the vision theme. It is a sensory substitute for reason, an alternative that proves both entertaining and inadequate.
Reason and vision cross in several crucial moments, allowing Shakespeare to draw them clearly into the foreground as related subjects. Lysander mixes them up when he explains his change of heart to Helena: “The will of man is by reason sway’d;/And reason says you are the worthier maid./Things growing are not ripe until their season,/So I, being young, till now ripe not to reason;/And touching now the point of human skill,/Reason leads me to your eyes, where I o’erlook/Love’s stories written in Love’s richest book” (III.i, ll.115-122). This is a crucial signpost for a reader. We know that Lysander has chosen because of what he awoke to see. The repetition of the word reason so thoroughly through the passage signals a connection. It is clear that this magic place somehow blurs the lines between the gaze and human judgement which should direct it, making them seem one and the same. Helena speaks directly to this point, foreshadowing its prevalence in the very first scene of the play. The opening scene ends with a prophetic soliloquy, during which Helena says “Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind;/And therefore is wing’d Cupid painted blind./Nor hath Love’s mind of any judgement taste” (I.i, ll.232-234). We, the audience, have been warned. There is a third party present in both of these passages. Love cannot be burdened with reason. If we are to surrender to love, we must too accept its blindness and lack of judgement.
This flighty, weightless reading of love bears consequences. It is easy to forget what the return to Athens, to daylight, to reason entails. For Hermia, it is death or the convent, a command enacted by her own father. The vision theme is of course included in this predicament, as Hermia argues “I would my father look’d but with my eyes” (I.i, l.56). Theseus retorts “Rather your eyes must with his judgement look,” (I.i, l.157) reminding both Hermia and the reader exactly which forces are contrasted here. The word “judgement,” the very same quality that will be verbally divorced from love (in Helena’s soliloquy, above), reminds us what the world of Athens creates. It may be daylight and clarity, free from magic potions or eerie forests. But reason means judgement, and therefore precludes love by its very nature. Hermia, because she loves, cannot possibly see with her father’s thinking eyes. She must abandon safety and light, and face the danger of fleeing into the dark woods to seek an alternative to this serious Athenian state.
The power of love to eclipse reason is only solidified by the ending of the play. In the final moments, Athens enters the wood, as Theseus and Hippolyta arrive there and catch the rebellious lovers, now united in two happy couples. Symbolically, the realm of reason must now face the realm of love. Although Egeus still demands the law, it is now Theseus’ wedding day and he sees with different eyes. The same man who so readily judged Hermia is suddenly willing to pardon her, for a specific and crucial reason: “Fair lovers, you are fortunately met;/Of this discourse we more will hear anon./Egeus, I will overbear your will;/For in the temple, by and by, with us/These couples shall eternally be knit” (IV.i, ll.177-181). The lovers are free because Theseus is seized by his love for Hippolyta, nearly consummated in marriage vows. But they are no longer in Athens, where he must proclaim his pomp and judgement and issue decrees of punishment. Still, he is the ruler, and voice of reason. Thus, Shakespeare shows us love and law combined in the voice of Theseus. It is marriage. The lovers are indeed free from the judgement of death, but they must now abandon the flighty lovemaking that was embraced by the wood.
Marriage is not a romantic decision, but a compromise between sensory, transitory love and stable, consistent reason. The love of Hippolyta and Theseus is less playful than the four crossed lovers. But it is also less elastic, and lacks the endless sensory allusions that signal trouble. Titania and Oberon, who dwell in the sensory world, can embrace and bless the marriage state but cannot truly achieve it themselves. This triple wedding at the end of the play is not necessarily happy. Essentially, Shakespeare embraces the necessity of law without reveling in it. One cannot live their life in the sensory world without controlling their perception. This control is human reason, and judgement. The beauty of the world, and the capacity of our vision to perceive it, is even greater when we understand what we are seeing and why. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is not simply a pretty, playful little spectacle. Beneath its fairy games and glittering words, Shakespeare has included reason, and therefore meaning.
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