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Essay: Love and magic in A Midsummer Night’s Dream

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Throughout the play, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, by William Shakespeare, we are immersed in chaos that conveys and mocks our human emotions. Our characters take various forms, both physically and mentally, as a result of fairy magic. These spells create a domino effect that takes the audience through comical love triangles and interactions. Ultimately, these spells do not augment the powers of beings but rather inform the audiences of their humanity through a shift/polarization of perspective. One relationship that is illuminated by the magic is the relationship between Titania and Oberon. I believe that the love-in-idleness potion is representative of how Oberon initially wants his partner(s) to behave, but that by the end of the play (although still flawed as a husband) Oberon understands that spells are not the foundation of “true” love. He recognizes that by inducing love between Titania and Bottom that he would still ultimately not be the primary focus of Titania’s affections and attention, or even worse: that he is not the only person whose heart can belong to hers.
Oberon and Titania are married magical royalty, yet their relationship is still very representative of human characteristics. Within the ensuing mischief, the human/petty emotions and reactions of Oberon is a commentary on the failings of the ego, materialism, and class structure. To retaliate against Titania for placing the majority of her attention and love to the changeling boy, rather than to him, Oberon creates a relationship between Titania and Bottom. We get our first in depth look at Titania and Oberon’s relationship dynamic in Act II Scene I. Upon seeing Titania they each express their dismay at seeing the other (at the present moment). “Tarry, rash wanton. Am not I thy lord?” (Act II.I, 49) Here Oberon, although a Fairy King, exhibits the same typical characteristics/beliefs of mortal men: women as property, duteous and faithful. Titania then retortes Oberon’s sexism and infidelity “Then I must be thy lady. But I know When thou hast stolen away from Fairyland, And in the shape of Corin sat all day, Playing on pipes of corn and versing love To amorous Phillida. Why art thou here, Come from the farthest step of India?” (Act II.I, 50). Here we get insight as to how Titania and Oberon communicate prior to the introduction of “Love-In-Idleness” Potion. They each then proceed to throw their respective escapades with humans in each others faces as evidence of the disrespect they display towards each other. “Why should Titania cross her Oberon? I do but beg a little changeling boy, To be my henchman” (ACT II.I, 100). Here Oberon again attempts to patronize his wife by reminding her that she is his object, and the source of all nuisance and instability. Oberon as the patriarch, presumes that the stress presently on their relationship is Titania’s fault as she is not obeying his word. Although being aggressive and patronizing in his push to acquire the changeling boy, he does not once mention a desire to separate from Titania permanently. As Oberon leaves Titania he senses people coming, and disappears into the landscape to listen in on Helena and Demetrius. After the love quarrel between Helena and Demetrius comes to an end when Demetrius exits Oberon states “Fare thee well, nymph. Ere he do leave this grove, Thou shalt fly him and he shall seek thy love.” By saying thou shalt fly him, he is admiring the way in which Helena fawns over Demetrius and in turn aiding her in her chase for him. He sees within Helena the very traits he wants Titania to exhibit, uninhibited desire and affection to ones man. In Oberon’s mind, he is doing Demetrius a favor when he instructs Robin to use the potion on him, as a woman is exhibiting unconditional love and loyalty. The very characteristics he desires from Titania. “Take thou some of it and seek through this grove: A sweet Athenian lady is in love With a disdainful youth. Anoint his eyes” (Act II.I, 247). There is absolutely no malicious intent in Oberon’s directions, and no self-reward for its execution. There is only inner-validation that he as King understands what it means to be in love and to have a loyal partner. In Scene II, Oberon uses the potion on an unsuspecting Titania. It is interesting to note what Oberon whispers into the sleeping ear of Titania as he intoxicates her. “What thou seest when thou dost wake, Do it for thy true love take.” Here he is not telling her not to love him, but rather think she loves someone else (to mistake another for a lover). This illuminates Oberon’s mindset of what the magic actually does. He acknowledges from the beginning that the potion is not real love, but rather an illusion that one never rids themselves unless broken from its spell. He is only doing this because he knows he can undo it. Real love cannot be undone. It can be corrupted temporarily, but ultimately love finds its counterpart (as we see in the restoration of normalcy at the end of the play). When they fight their love for each other, a magic beyond their control lashes out like a solar flare and takes the form of natural disaster and mischief indicating that the world is better when true lovers embrace each other and that some things (such as love) are above even mystical beings or powers.
In Act III Scene I, Titania finally bestows her drunken eyes upon Bottom, who has recently been transformed by Puck into the form of a donkey/ass human beast hybrid. Titania greets him by praising his vocal talents and beauty. “Thou art as wise as thou art beautiful” (Act III.I, 75). This is not indicative of how Titania spoke prior to the potion, and her language towards Bottom reveals just how much she is not herself. Bottom lacking any cognizance of the situation of his external appearance, does not even question the affections of a fairy stranger in the middle of the night. He embodies the “Ass” both physically and mentally as his narcissism and lack of awareness create a comedic sense of confidence in himself during the encounter. He also embodies however, the control to which Oberon thinks he should have over Titania. In Act IV, Scene I, we see the peak of Bottom’s command over Titania. As the fairies tend to Bottom, he exclaims, “Nothing, good monsieur, but to help Cavalery Cobweb to scratch. I must to the barber’s, monsieur, for methinks I am marvelous hairy about the face. And I am such a tender ass, if my hair do but tickle me, I must scratch” (Act IV.I, 15). Here he is directing mustardseed, giving him orders. It also important to note that Bottom although physically different is mentally devoid of magic. Bottom doesn’t even realize something is amiss when he craves the meals of a donkey. “Truly, a peck of provender. I could munch your good dry oats. Methinks I have a great desire to a bottle of hay. Good hay, sweet hay, hath no fellow” (Act IV.I, 18). This means not only are fairies being order around by a mortal, but rather a real “ass” of a mortal. To matter what magic the fairies could come up with to mess with Bottom and in turn Titania, nothing could compare to the offense of the lowering of Titania’s station to adore such a bafoon. The gravest insult to Oberon, should he have witnessed it all, would be the idea that not only was his wife a servant to her illusion of love, but by association her fairy wards/sidekicks as well. This goes against both of their beliefs as, although both have shown love towards humans they ultimately both viewed their mortal counterparts as disposable toys to be left to die or ravished. This is what causes Oberon the most anxiety as, like the changeling boy, it represents the prospect of another mortal who will receive the affection he believes is rightfully his. The relationship between Titania and Bottom amuses Oberon briefly, but in the end it leaves a bitter taste in his mouth as he feels he has abused his power towards the one he loves. That he has accomplished the opposite of what he set out to do. Seeing someone he knows is strong, someone worthy of his attention (or attending to him), at the mercy of beastly Bottom convinces him the spell does not facilitate true love, but rather lust and infatuation. It reveals how ineffective it is at creating true love, as if it were effective it would mean Titania could love someone that was not him; that he is not the person who she always put first.
At the end of the play, in Act V Scene I, Oberon and Titania rejoice leading him to sing a tune. It begins:

Now until the break of day,
Through this house each fairy stray.
To the best bride bed will we,
Which by us shall blessèd be.
And the issue there create
Ever shall be fortunate.
So shall all the couples three
Ever true in loving be.
And the blots of Nature’s hand
Shall not in their issue stand.

This portion of the song indicates that Oberon moving forward wants to focus on Titania and creating children blessed with good fortune. This reinforces the idea that Oberon has recognized Titania as his eternal partner, of which there is no equal. It also addresses the love of the mortal characters of the play, proclaiming that now that balance is restored they may return to their true selves and rediscover their true love. He recognizes that the mortal’s relationships were not real or true when under the guise of the flower. Had Oberon felt the potion had brought luck or happiness to the mortal lovers, he would not have undone the work of the potion. It also important to note that he does not celebrate the acquisition of the changeling boy, but rather focuses on the potential children he and Titania can have. This further drives home the idea that Oberon never cared about the changeling boy, but rather desired his wife’s attention above all else.
I believe Shakespeare is showcasing the idea of two kinds of magic: The magic of the supernatural which is cast upon one by another being, and the organic magic that does not originate from an individual but rather created organically between two people. Shakespeare ties the environment to the harmony between Oberon to show that magic or higher power can be derived from love alone. When they fight their love for each other, the collateral magic takes the form of natural disaster and mischief indicating that the world is better when true lovers embrace each other. It is not a cast spell that causes floods and other disaster, but rather the human-like interaction and relationship between two magical figures. I look at the events through the perspective of Oberon (and by proxy Robin) because they are the only two characters in the play that do not endure a magical transformation of the body or mind. Oberon is at all times himself. When Oberon sees his wife under the command of an ass he created, he begins to pity her situation as her defiance makes her who she is. Although Oberon is a fairy king, his relationship with Titania is at its best when the magic of their relationship is not derived from mischief or spellcasting, but from their humanity. Ultimately, Oberon’s magic proved to Titania the true depths of their admiration for each other and the consequences of loving mortals, or rather someone who is not your true love. It is important to note however, that in all instances of magic on mortals it was with the intent to make their lives “better” or more fortunate. Titania is the only person who is targeted with magical mal-intent. While Oberon attempts to have magic create a beast for his wife to be enamored with, he ultimately insists Puck undo the spell so that the “true lovers” are together by the end of the play. I believe that the artificially induced romance humbled Oberon, in that he created a situation that would reinvigorate his jealousy and in turn lead him to place love before his ego. The “Love in-idleness” potion is representative of the relationship structure Oberon wanted to have with Titania “organically”. Oberon could have left everyone in their spellbound state, ran off with the boy, and continued to have sexual encounters with mortals. But since he recognizes his whole initial objective was to have the affection of the one he loves, he chooses to have Puck lift the spell. Had Oberon believed the mortals were better off under the veil of the potion, he would not have let the mortals awake reset and returned to normalcy.

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