Summary and Analysis
Act II: Scene 1
This scene transports its viewers from Athens into the woods outside of the city, the dwelling place of Oberon, Titania, and their band of fairies. The scene begins with a conversation between Oberon's mischievous elf Robin Goodfellow, also known as Puck, and one of Titania's attendants. Puck warns her to keep Titania away from this part of the woods because Oberon will be reveling here, and if the two meet there will certainly be a serious quarrel. Oberon is angry with Titania because she refuses to give him a sweet Indian boy upon whom she dotes. Titania's attendant suddenly recognizes Puck, accusing him of being the hobgoblin who is blamed for roguish acts in the village, such as frightening young women or misleading night travelers. Puck admits that he is this "merry wanderer of the night."
Suddenly Oberon and Titania enter the scene from opposite directions. Their bickering begins. Each accuses the other of having had affairs, and Titania says Oberon's persecution of her has caused the current chaos in the world: The rivers are flooding, the corn is rotting, and people are plagued by "rheumatic" diseases. Oberon blames Titania; if she would simply relinquish the Indian boy, peace would be restored. Titania refuses to let the boy go because his mother was a close friend of hers, and when she died in childbirth, Titania agreed to raise her son.
Hatching a plan to win the Indian boy, Oberon sends Puck in search of a flower called love-in-idleness. When the juice of this magical flower is poured on sleepers' eyelids, it makes them dote crazily on the first live creature they see upon awakening. In this way, Oberon plans to make Titania fall in love with some wild beast; he won't release her from this unpleasant spell until she gives him the Indian boy.
After Puck has left in search of the powerful flower, Oberon sits scheming. Demetrius and Helena unknowingly stumble into his bower, but he is invisible to them. Helena actively pursues her beloved, but Demetrius vows to hurt her if she doesn't leave him alone. After they have left, Puck returns. Taking pity on Helena, Oberon tells Puck to anoint the eyes of the Athenian man (Demetrius) so that he will fall in love with this jilted woman. Puck promises to fulfill Oberon's order, though Puck hasn't seen Demetrius, so he doesn't know which Athenian Oberon is talking about.
From the world of Athens, ruled by the rational Theseus, the play transports us to the fairy-infested woods, dominated by the magical Oberon and Titania. Despite the differences in atmosphere of the various scenes, the theme remains the same: love in all of its variations. In the opening conversation between Puck and Titania's fairy, they discuss the fight between the rulers of the fairy world, providing another example of a love that is not going smoothly. Titania has foresworn the "bed and company" of Oberon (62), and their conversation focuses on the infidelities committed by each: Not only was Oberon once in love with the "bouncing Amazon," Hippolyta, but Titania was supposedly enamoured of Theseus. While the previous scenes presented couples newly embarked on the road of love, the conversation between Oberon and Titania shows the difficulties of a couple that has been together for a long time. Without their guiding love, the entire land has been ravaged by floods, rotting crops, and numerous rheumatic diseases. Notice how the fairy world is directly connected with the cycles of the moon: as "governess of the floods" (103), the moon, which is pale in anger because of Titania and Oberon's argument, has indirectly caused numerous human illnesses.
The scene not only reiterates the difficulties of male-female love but emphasizes the deep love that often exists between two friends. A primary source of the argument between Oberon and Titania is the Indian boy. While Oberon criticizes Titania for stealing the child from the Indian king, Titania's reasons for keeping the child are more personal. Titania was good friends with the boy's mother, one of her priestesses, with whom she would often sit gossiping. In beautifully lyrical language, Titania describes the pregnancy of her friend, which caused her to grow "big-bellied" as gracefully as the sails, filled by the wind of the trading ships that floated in and out of the Indian ports. When her friend died in childbirth, Titania chose to raise her friend's son. The beauty of Titania's language in describing her friend emphasizes the depth of their friendship.
So why is Oberon so fixated on stealing the boy and employing him as henchman (meaning page)? Shakespeare never explains Oberon's reasons. Perhaps Oberon is jealous of the close bond between Titania and the child, a relationship from which Oberon seems firmly excluded, or perhaps he simply wants to assert his male authority over Titania. Literary critics have also suggested that perhaps Oberon is desperate for a male heir, and the child could fulfill that role. In a subtler argument, the critic Harold Bloom has argued that the key dilemma hinges on the relationship of mortals and immortals: Excluding Oberon from the life of this mortal child, one who will learn the magical secrets of the fairies, is an "injury" enacted upon the entire fairy world. As one of the leaders of this community, Oberon has every right to participate in decisions made in determining how this changeling is raised. But we will never know the answer to this question because, Shakespeare tells us, each reader is free to discover the solution that best fits with the details in the rest of the play and with the reader's own preferences.
To win the child back from Titania, Oberon invokes the first real magic in the play, creating a clear link between reality and fantasy. His plan is to steal the Indian boy from Titania after making her fall in love with some unsavory, preferably beastly, character. He will accomplish this task by creating a love potion that will blind Titania, much as Cupid's arrows are reputed to do. The juice works by impairing vision: Oberon says that the love juice will charm Titania's sight, again emphasizing that love is often blind.
The scene in which Oberon discusses his plan to find the plant called love-in-idleness, the key ingredient of this potion, is filled with relevant imagery and allusions. First, Oberon discusses Cupid loosing an arrow upon a "fair vestal, throned by the west" 158). Most critics believe that this fair vestal is Queen Elizabeth, the implicit patroness of this play, which was probably written for a wedding celebration that she attended. Like this "imperial votress," who avoids Cupid's "fiery shaft," Elizabeth never married and supposedly remained a virgin throughout her life. In missing Elizabeth, the arrow instead falls upon the tiny pansy called love-in-idleness, which has become a potent love juice. Forgoing love herself, Elizabeth has unleashed love into the world. This passage also continues the moon imagery of previous scenes: the "chaste," "cold" moon is associated with the goddess Diana and with Elizabeth.
In the final section of this scene, the human world interacts with the fairy realm, as Demetrius and Helena unknowingly infringe upon Oberon's dominion. Helena represents a character completely overwhelmed by love; she has relinquished all self-respect in her pursuit of Demetrius. As she says, the more he beats her, the more she will love him. Groveling before him, she is willing to be used as he uses his dog. Their interaction has a violent edge, as Demetrius vows he will leave her to the mercy of wild beasts or even potentially rape her if she does not leave him alone. Even his harshest statements have no tempering influence on Helena's obsessive affection. This interaction between Demetrius and Helena highlights the often violent subtext of this play, and suggests that strong emotions such as love often feed into other, less desirable but equally strong behaviors, like violence.
The gender switch in Helena and Demetrius' conversation adds an interesting component to the play's representation of love because it reminds us that men and women are limited by the types of roles they are traditionally allowed when seeking love. Helena invokes male prerogative in pursing Demetrius, reversing many of the myths that abound of men chasing women: She will be Apollo to his Daphne, the griffin to his dove, the tiger to his doe. All of these examples suggest male creatures violating a female, often sexually. Helena seems aware of her odd position in relationship with her beloved. She argues that women aren't allowed to fight for love in the same way men do, so her pursuit of Demetrius makes him hate her, perhaps because it displays an unfeminine aggressiveness.
Of course, Helena is not the only woman in the text who acts on the edge of gender boundaries. As we learned in the opening scene, Hippolyta was once a fighter, the respected leader of the Amazons, a band of warrior women. Like Hippolyta, Theseus' warrior bride, Helena usurped a traditionally male role of dominance and power; like Hippolyta, she needs to be subdued. Although she will probably never be the fighter Hippolyta once was, Helena's attempt to control her own destiny in love causes problems for the male world. Perhaps this is why Helena is rewarded for her faithfulness. Oberon supports her cause by vowing to use the love juice on Demetrius, leaving him fonder of her than she is of him and returning her to a submissive, traditionally feminine position.
lob (16) a big, slow, clumsy person.
quern (36) a primitive hand mill, especially for grinding grain.
bootless (37) in vain.
barm (38) the yeast foam that appears on the surface of malt liquors as they ferment.
dewlap (50) a loose fold of skin hanging from the throat of cattle and certain other animals, or a similar loose fold under the chin of a person.
neeze (56) sneeze.
Corin, Phillida (66, 68) conventional names of pastoral lovers.
buskin'd (71) wearing boots reaching to the calf or knee.
Perigouna (78) one of Theseus' lovers.
Aegles (79) the woman for whom Theseus abandoned Ariadne.
Ariadne (80) King Minos' daughter, who gives Theseus the thread by which he finds his way out of the labyrinth after killing the Minotaur.
Antiopa (80) Queen of the Amazons, often identified with Hippolyta, but here they are viewed as separate women.
nine-men's morris (98) pattern cut in the turf when this game was played outside with nine pebbles.
old Hiems (109) the winter god.
childing (112) pregnant.
wonted liveries (113) accustomed attire.
mazed (113) bewildered.
love-in-idleness (116) pansy, heartsease.
wood (192) insane.
adamant (195) lodestone, a hard stone or substance that was supposedly unbreakable.
Apollo (231) the god of music, poetry, prophecy, and medicine, represented as exemplifying manly youth and beauty.
Daphne (231) a nymph who is changed into a laurel tree to escape Apollo's unwanted advances.
hind (232) the female of the red deer.
oxlips (250) a perennial plant of the primrose family.
woodbine (251) a European climbing honeysuckle with fragrant, yellowish-white flowers.
muskroses (252) Mediterranean roses with fragrant, usually white, flowers.
eglantine (252) European rose with hooked spines, sweet-scented leaves, and usually pink flowers.