Love Potion and Themes
By Angela Crivello
Shakespeare draws multiple sources from Greek mythology in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The love potion, which Puck first mistakenly administers to Lysander’s eyes, is made from the juice of a flower that was struck with one of Cupid’s misfired arrows. Oberon tells Puck,
Yet mark’d I where the bolt of Cupid fell:
It fell upon a little western flower…
The juice of it on sleeping eye-lids laid
Will make man or woman madly dote
Upon the next live creature that it sees. (MND, 165-72)
Cupid, known as Eros in Greek mythology, is the son of Mercury, the messenger of the gods, and Venus the goddess of love. Cupid is the god of desire and his bow is the main source of his power. A person or even deity shot by cupid’s arrow is said to experience extreme desire, attraction, and affection. The fairies use this magical flower to wreak romantic havoc throughout Acts II, III, and IV. Due to the fact the fairies are careless with the love potion, the situation becomes increasingly confusing when Demetrius and Lysander are magically compelled to transfer their love from Hermia to Helena. Consequently, the love potion becomes a symbol of the unreasonable and overwhelming nature of love, which leads to inexplicable and unpredictable behavior.
The theme of love and conflict is central in this play as well as love and marriage, which sometimes can be one in the same. According to Harold F. Brooks, the editor of The Arden Shakespeare edition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, “The affirmation of its value is the work of the whole dramatic action, from the opening line spoken by Theseus, to Oberon’s final words” (Brooks, cxxx). Brooks argues that the obstacles the four lovers face reaffirms the resilience of true love because in the final act Lysander marries Hermia and Demetrius marries Helena. The pureness of love is paralleled with the pureness of virginity. For example, Hermia teases Lysander and doesn’t allow him to sleep close to her. She objects to Lysander’s advances, “Lysander riddles very prettily: But, gentle friend, for love and courtesy // Lie further off; in human modesty”(MND, 52-56). The concept of pure love paralleled with virginity would be familiar to an Elizabethan audience because sex, as stated in the Bible, was intended to be sacred and consummated after marriage. This could also be interpreted as a compliment to the Virgin Queen “as a means of giving importance to the ‘little western flower’” (Brooks, cxxxii). These conflicts and obstacles are essential to the plot of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and contribute to the central theme of love and conflict.
The irrational behavior of the characters, in response to the love potion, alludes to another crucial theme of the play, perception and identity. The four young lovers are irrational victims of the blindness of love. Their perceptions are altered and questions of imagination and reality are brought to light. For example, in act three scene two Hermia questions why Lysander doesn’t lover her anymore and she replies, “Am I not Hermia? Are not you Lysander? I am as fair now as I was erewhile” (MND, 273-274). Hermia doesn’t understand why Lysander doesn’t love her anymore because she is unaware that he is under a trance. Accodring to Brooks, “Many errors of imagination are mistakes of appearance for reality”. Lysander’s new distaste for Hermia appears to be reality, but as Brook’s suggests this is an error of Hermia’s imagination as the entire trance is considered to be imaginative or fictional. Regardless, Hermia attempts to explain that her physical appearance hasn’t changed therefore he should still be in love with her. Other mistakes of appearance for reality include: the rivalry between Demetrius and Lysander, Hermia’s emotional suffering, and Helena’s perception of the actions of the three as an attempt to mock her. Unaware that they are under enchantment, the young men regard their rivalry as spontaneous; that is how it appears to them, but in reality it is all a reaction to the faults of the fairies. Hermia’s suffering is real enough, as she believes, but forced on Lysander by magic, and therefore not exactly reality.
Puck and Oberon, as well as the audience, know the true causes of the lovers’ quarrel. In turn, the fairies draw the audience’s attention to the fact that this is all a production performed by actors (cxxxviii). Therefore this play challenges the audience to distinguish imagination from reality while simultaneously accepting Shakespeare’s commentary about a very real human experience of the conflicts of love. In these ways the performance tampers with our perceptions of reality and creates a meaningful reality out of seemingly meaningless illusions.
Brooks, Harold. The Arden Shakespeare: A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Metheun & Co. Ltd., 1979.
“Cupid.” Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc. 5 May, 2015. http://www.britannica.com/topic/Cupid