Summary and Analysis
Encountering Oberon in another part of the forest, Puck explains the outcome of his experiments with the love potion. Oberon is pleased to learn that Titania has fallen in love with the monstrous Bottom and that Puck has also fixed the disdainful Athenian. Just after Puck assures him that Demetrius must now love Helena, Demetrius and Hermia enter the scene. Oberon recognizes Demetrius, but Puck realizes this is not the same Athenian he bewitched with the potion. Because her darling Lysander has mysteriously disappeared, Hermia accuses Demetrius of murdering him and hiding the body. Demetrius insists that he didn't kill his enemy, but Hermia refuses to believe him. Giving up the argument in despair, Demetrius sinks to the ground and falls asleep, while Hermia continues her search for the missing Lysander.
Oberon reprimands Puck for anointing the wrong Athenian with the love juice. To correct the situation, Oberon sends Puck in search of Helena and then squeezes the magic potion into the cold-hearted Demetrius' eyes. Lysander and Helena enter the scene, still bickering because Helena thinks he is mocking her. Their voices wake Demetrius, who falls in love with Helena at first sight, compliments of Oberon's potion. Hearing what she believes are Demetrius' phony declarations of love, Helena is furious: Both Lysander and Demetrius are now making fun of her. When Hermia enters, the situation gets even worse.
Not knowing about the potion-induced change in Lysander's feelings for her, Hermia is shocked when he declares he no longer loves her. Of course, Helena thinks that Hermia is also in on the farce and can't believe her closest childhood friend could be so nasty. After the lovers have all fought and fled the scene, Oberon forces Puck to fix the problem before the men kill each other. He advises Puck to create a deep fog in which the lovers will get lost and, finally, fall asleep in exhaustion. When they awake in the morning, the night's crazy events will seem like a dream except that Demetrius will be in love with Helena. Oberon then rushes to Titania's bower to beg for the Indian boy.
Shakespeare's parody of love reaches its peak in this scene. Although Hermia claims Lysander's love is truer than the sun onto the day, previous scenes have shown that his love was easily altered with the application of a little love juice. When Oberon criticizes Puck for turning a true love false, rather than a false love true, Puck replies, "one man holding troth, / A million fail, confounding oath on oath" (92-93), suggesting only one man in a million is actually able to be true to his vows of love; all others break oath on oath, including the seemingly true Lysander. The comedy of the situation appeals to Puck, who muses on what fools "mortals be."
In declaring his love for Helena, Demetrius focuses first on her eyes, which he believes are clearer than crystal. Her lips are luscious fruit, like ripe and tempting cherries, but, more interestingly, he emphasizes her "whiteness." She is a pure white, like the snow on top of some high summit; indeed, in his eyes she is a "princess of pure white." The emphasis on white links her with purity, with innocence, with the dazzling, blinding light of a snow-covered field. But it also has a racial overtone. As whiteness becomes associated with purity, darkness becomes linked with its opposite, with evil. This creates a hierarchical dichotomy in which whiteness is prized and darkness is denigrated. As a result, dark-skinned people are also maligned, as happens here with Hermia. Lysander critiques her by labeling her an "Ethiope" and a "tawny Tartar" and implying that her darkness makes her somehow inferior to Helena.
Not surprisingly, Helena is angered by what she views as her friends toying with her, so she adds to the criticism by commenting on Hermia's stature. Indeed, height seems to play a role in love, and Hermia seems to believe that Lysander loves Helena simply because she is the taller of the two women. This exchange emphasizes the arbitrariness of the factors that create or repel love: eye color, hair color, height.
Like Helena earlier in the play, Hermia is here pushed beyond the limits of "maiden's patience" (66); when dealing with love, women forget the gender limits that have been imposed upon them, perhaps because they are judged by such seemingly ridiculous standards. Retaliating against suggestions that she is small, even dwarfish, Hermia calls Helena a "painted maypole." This comment implies a double critique: not only is Helena as skinny as a pole, but she is "painted," suggesting she is sexually knowledgeable. The fight that ensues between the two women puts them both beyond the limits of supposedly feminine gentleness. Helena further critiques Hermia by calling her "keen," "shrewd," and a "vixen." A short shrew, Hermia is not the ideal woman.
In calling Demetrius a serpent, an adder, Hermia creates continuity with Act II, Scene 2, in which she dreamed that a serpent ate her heart out. But in this instance, Hermia mistakes the snake; Demetrius has not killed Lysander, but her heart will soon be pierced with an even greater shock. Hermia's hatred of Demetrius parallels his loathing of Helena, again adding continuity to the text. Notice how carefully Shakespeare has structured his play; by repeating key images, such as the moon or the serpent or Cupid's arrow, and key relationships and feelings, he has created a fluid, continuous text.
The relationship of Hermia and Helena is also parallel with that of Titania and her Indian votress. Like Titania and her friend, Helena and Hermia are as close as sisters. Together they sang with one voice, often working as if their hands and minds were united. Indeed, Helena compares them to a "double cherry" that seems to be parted, yet is united at the stem. Close friendship is another form of love exalted in this play. Helena chides her friend for destroying this ancient bond for the sake of a man; not only is this action a treachery against Helena, but it is an injury against all women. Of course, Helena here forgets that she has also done Hermia wrong; she told Demetrius about her friend's plan of elopement as a ploy to win his love, despite the fact that such knowledge might not be beneficial to Hermia. The play shows the conflicts that often ensue between love and friendship. For women in particular, friendship appears to be a vital part of life. Both Titania's actions with the Indian boy and Helena's comments in this scene suggest that women need to stick together, supporting each other, rather than letting their love for a man destroy their bonds of friendship. While the tides of love are forever ebbing and flowing, the waves of true friendship are calm and constant.
Such a friendship does not exist between Lysander and Demetrius. Although the text presents enough detail about the women's appearances and personalities for the reader to differentiate them, the two male lovers are basically indistinguishable. Both Lysander and Demetrius are critiqued for their fickle, faithless ways, and Helena criticizes them further for their unmanly behavior toward her. Suggesting that they are men only "in show," Helena argues that real men would not mock a lady, would not pretend to love her when they actually hate her. Making a woman cry does not qualify as "a manly enterprise" in Helena's opinion. What are the attributes of a gentleman? For Helena, honesty and faithfulness seem to be the two primary requirements. Neither she nor Hermia provides any explanation for their love of Demetrius and Lysander, respectively. No mention is made of either man's appearance or of any special aspects of his personality, so there seems to be no reason for either woman's love. Indeed, the similarities in Demetrius' and Lysander's personalities become pronounced as they run through the fog Puck creates to keep them from fighting. Puck speaks with both their voices, so together the three generate a melange of voices in which individual identities are completely lost.
Do we see changes in the personalities of Puck or Oberon in this scene? From the beginning of the play, Puck has been presented as a mischievous elf, toying with the people in the surrounding villages to create entertainment for Oberon. His playful side is also emphasized here. As the scene opens, he revels in relating to Oberon the effects of his transformation of Bottom into an ass. Not only did Titania fall in love with the monstrous fellow, but Bottom's friends were so frightened by the change that they felt the entire woods had been transformed into something malevolent, so that even the briars and branches maliciously tore their clothing. When he realizes that he's placed the love potion into the wrong Athenian's eyes and that soon two men will be chasing after Helena, he is excited by the "sport," preferring things that happen "prepost'rously" (121). In addition, he does not accept the blame for this mistake but labels it an act of fate. Similarly, he blames Cupid, rather than himself, for making "poor females mad" (441). Mischief and chaos are Puck's domain.
Oberon, on the other hand, is a more responsible fairy. The ruler of the fairy world, Oberon is not pleased to learn that Puck has charmed the wrong Athenian. On the one hand, Oberon's behavior towards Titania is imperious and self-serving: He is delighted that she has fallen for an ass. Yet he is not interested in creating havoc solely for his own amusement, as is Puck. Instead, he would like to make false loves turn true, promoting joy and love in the world. Oberon also reveals that he is not one of the "damned spirits" who haunts the world by night. He is a different type of spirit, one that enjoys the morning, the fiery-red sun. While literature abounds with malevolent fairies who vex humanity, Oberon and his crew are benevolent creatures, promoting peace and happiness in the human realm.
patches (9) clowns.
noll (17) head.
mimic (19) burlesque actor.
russet-pated choughs (21) reddish brown-headed crows.
Antipodes (55) the opposite side of the earth.
mispris'd (74) mistaken.
fancy-sick (96) lovesick.
Taurus (141) mountain range along the S coast of Asia Minor, Turkey.
Ethiope (257) a black person; a reference to Hermia's relatively dark hair and complexion.
cankerblossom (282) a worm that destroys the flower bud.
minimus (329) petite person.
coil (339) commotion; turmoil.
aby (335) to pay the penalty for.
welkin (356) the vault of heaven, the sky, or the upper air.
Acheron (357) a river in Hades: often identified as the river across which Charon ferries the dead.
Aurora's harbinger (380) the morning star, precursor of the dawn.
the Morning's love (389) Cephalus, a beautiful boy loved by Aurora.
recreant (409) cowardly, craven.
wot (422) to know.