Besides the more technical uses of repetition, he is famous for repeating certain keywords throughout his plays to construct specific themes. In the Bedford Companion to Shakespeare, Russ McDonald emphasizes Shakespeare’s decisive use of language, writing that, “Shakespeare’s verbal power is an inexhaustible subject; finally it is a mystery. The magic of his language, its irresistible attraction, is a result of an artistic imagination speaking to the imagination of the audience, and figurative language is the medium for that communication. As we learn from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, images, imagination, and magic are all of a piece” (37-8). In the play A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare uses a couple of different words steadily throughout the play, one being “moon”, and another being “eye”. The repetition of the word “moon” has been explored extensively and has clear and widely known connections with themes such as virginity and inconstancy. This is because of what Diana the Roman goddess of the moon symbolizes and the Elizabethans’ connection between the moon’s waxing and waning and the indecisiveness of human character. In light of the large amount of research and knowledge on the symbolic importance of the moon in the play and in literature in general, the other highly repeated word, “eye”, should be given some closer examination and thought. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare, strong and rich connections can be drawn between the repetition of the word “eye” and the fickleness of the imagination in relation to love.
Perhaps the best place to begin is at the end. Theseus’ speech at the beginning of Act 5, Scene 1 is quite possibly the clearest embodiment of the concept of fickleness of the imagination in relation to love within the play:
Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.
The lunatic, the lover, and the poet
Are of imagination all compact.
One sees more devils than vast hell could hold:
That is the madman. 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,
And as imagination bodies forth
The form of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name. (5.1.4-17)
Theseus makes the argument that lovers, madmen, and poets’ realities are not based in reason but rather in their imaginations. The madman sees devils that cannot possibly be there; the lover, just as mad himself, sees Helen of Troy, who was supposedly the most beautiful woman to ever live, in the face of a gypsy, a race thought of as inferior and ugly by the Elizabethans; the poet sees the world around him and imagines things unseen, turning these fantasies into realities with his pen. In all instances, the eyes lead these people into fantastical imagination. For better or worse, it seems inevitable that one’s eyes deceive them from time to time.
In regards to the four lovers of this play, Helena, Hermia, Demetrius, and Lysander, it appears that, although it looks not with the eyes, love nevertheless looks at the eyes. That is to say, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. This notion is perchance understood most easily from a speech by Helena in Act 1, Scene 1 when she talks bitterly of Demetrius’ betrayal: “For ere Demetrius looked on Hermia’s eyne He hailed down oaths that he was only mine, And when this hail some heat from Hermia felt, So he dissolved, and showers of oaths did melt” (1.1.242-5). Before Demetrius had looked into Hermia’s eyes, he had sworn to Helena that she was his one and only. After looking upon Hermia’s eye, Demetrius fell in love with her, and the oaths that he had previously sworn to Helena seemed to just drift away. Thus, a person’s eyes can entrance the imagination and create love seemingly on the instant. This can be understood even more so in the old cliché, ‘love is blind’.
Love may truly be blind, and it sure acts as if it is when you look at all the great love stories in which characters are willing to endure insane hardships and overcome almost any hindrance in hopes of being united with their love-objects. When we look at the lovers of the play, they are engulfed by desire and imagination which does not represent the reality of their love-objects. Helena gives a number of speeches throughout the play which deal with the role of the eyes in love, many of which seem to foresee the infatuations that occur in the forest. In fact, within the first scene Helena says, “Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind, And therefore is winged Cupid painted blind. Nor hath love’s mind any judgment of taste; Wings and no eyes figure unheedy haste.” (1.1.234-7). In Latin, the verb “cupio, cupere, cupivi, cupitus” means “to desire, want”. Taking this historical fact of language into account, Cupid being painted blind shows us that human desire at its deepest root is unreasonable and impulsive. According to art historian Erwin Panofsky, “Helena’s speech is casting back to a medieval tradition in which Cupid was painted with a bandage over his eyes to represent the blindness of vulgar sensuality” (1962: 122-3). It could be that in all of this, it is vulgar fancies of the mind which produce such irrational action in our four lovers. This breaks down the whimsical ideal of love and turns our characters into nothing more than people acting out of animalistic craving. This cynical view of love is supported also by the adventures of the lovers in the forest.
The entirety of the forest escapade is used by Shakespeare as a major point of support for the theme of the fickleness of the imagination in relation to love. Everything that happens in the forest is dreamlike and serves as a metaphor for the human imagination when spellbound by love. When Demetrius and Helena meet in the forest in Act 2 Scene 1, Demetrius degrades her, saying, “Tempt not too much the hatred of my spirit; For I am sick when I do look on thee” (2.1.211-2) to which Helena responds, “Then how can it be said I am alone, When all the world is here to look on me?” (2.1.225-6). When Helena says that “all the world” is there looking at her, she is saying that Demetrius is the entire world, for he is the only one present. Again, it is Demetrius’ look which is described explicitly, showing the power of a love-object’s gaze. This ability of the eyes to engender both hatred and love is what lead Shakespeare scholar James L. Calderwood to say that “these annihilating looks and the general antagonisms of the wood may remind us that falling in love is hard to distinguish from falling in hate” (1992:39). These “gazes” are employed by Shakespeare once again as plot devices in Oberon’s scheme.
The whole concept of the “love juice” and its application to the eyes of Lysander, Demetrius, and Titania is a connection between the eyes and the imagination. When Puck anoints the eyes of these three characters, they instantly fall in love with the first thing they see. This is an exaggerated form of the concepts of beauty being in the eye of the beholder and love being blind. It is exaggerated purposefully as to show how the mind can ridiculously warp our vision of love and our love-object. Especially in Titania’s case when she falls instantly in love with Bottom, who has the head of an ass. In Lysander and Demetrius’ case, they represent the fickleness of the imagination and love when they both instantly fall in love with Helena, since they had both just been pursuing Hermia. The following confusion of Helena’s disbelief that the two men really love her, as well as her accusations that Hermia has conspired with them to play a prank on her, create yet another display of the fickleness of the imagination. Confusion plays its role again in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in the play-within-the-play.
Shakespeare uses the interesting tool of ‘metatheater’ to press the power of the eye and the imagination’s fickleness one more time to his audience. In the play put on by the bumbling actors, The Most Lamentable Comedy and Most Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisbe, we are again faced with metaphors backed by a larger metaphor. The fact that the actors are terrible and do ridiculous things such as Snug telling the women in the audience to not fear him because he is not really a lion, but Snug, or Starveling, who plays the moon, saying “This lantern doth the horned moon present” (5.1.231), shows the air of confusion around the entire performance. The title itself shows a confused troop of actors, for how can a comedy be most lamentable and funny at the same time? Well, besides it being a pun of Shakespeare’s since they act so terribly that the play is actually funny, no play can truly display both these themes wholly and this shows the performance as one surrounded in confusion. This confusion is similar to the misunderstandings of the lovers in the forest. Within the context of this confusion of performance, Pyramus and Thisbe are only able to view and hear each other through a crack in a wall which furthers the idea of the imaginations ability to create, elaborate love fantasies and that the mind is opened to these through the eye. They can only see each other through a slit, so the eyes of the lovers are windows into one another’s minds. Without much deep knowledge of each other, they fall madly in love and create an incredible romance. This is very similar to what happens in the forest with the “love juice” and the four lovers. Their eyes act as Pyramus and Thisbe’s do, as do their imaginations. The tragic end of Pyramus and Thisbe shows the most extreme point of where the mind can lead someone, to death. They built their entire romance, one which they died for, around one another’s eyes. And what passions came of it, what senseless passions.
In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, both the mind and the eyes are as senseless as the other. The mind lacks serious judgment, perhaps shown best in Helena’s unrequited love for Demetrius. Thus, Love’s eye and mind are both blinded, as Cupid was blinded, because the senses fall short, as did Pyramus and Thisbe’s senses, and the mind lacks judgment, as do the minds of Demetrius, Lysander, Helena, and Hermia. The fickleness of the imagination in relation to love is repeated throughout with references to the “eye”: the anointing of the lovers’ eyes by Puck in the woods and the subsequent mess they find themselves in, the looks and gazes which set the minds of the lovers into fantastical imagination, and the metaphorical use of the tale of Pyramus and Thisbe’s eye-engendered romance that leads them to their deaths. In Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the eye leads the characters in and out of love, confusion, and unbounded imagination. The eye acts as a window into the characters’ minds, while the imagination is a fog which covers that window, shaping our lovers into a literal representation of the imagination’s fickleness in relation to love.
Calderwood, James L. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1992.
McDonald, Russ. The Bedford Companion to Shakespeare: An Introduction with Documents. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2001.
Panofsky, Erwin. “Blind Cupid” in his Studies on Iconology. New York: Oxford University Press, 1962.
Shakespeare, William. “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” The Norton Shakespeare. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2009. 199-246.