In his play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare, clearly establishes the feelings of Theseus with respect to love. Theseus expresses his doubt in the verisimilitude of the lover’s recount of their night in the forest. He says that he has no faith in the ravings of lovers- or poets-, as they are as likely as madmen are to be divorced from reason. Coming, as it does, after the resolution of the lovers’ dilemma, this monologue serves to dismiss most of the play a hallucinatory imaginings.
Theseus is the voice of reason and authority but, he bows to the resulting change of affection brought about by the night’s confused goings on, and allows Hermia, Lysander, Helena and Demetrius to marry where their hearts would have them. This place where the line between dream and reality blurs is an important theme of the play. Theseus is also a lover, but his affair with Hippolyta is based upon the cold reality of war, “Hippolyta, I wooed thee with my sword, And won thy love doing thee injuries… “(I,i,16-17).
He is eager to wed Hippolyta and marriage is the place where reason and judgment rule. He wins the hand of his bride through action not through flattery, kisses and sighs inspired by her beauty. In lines 4-6 of his monologue he dismisses the accounts of lovers and madmen on the grounds that they are both apt to imagine a false reality as being real. When, in I,i,56, Hermia tells Theseus, “I would my father looked but with my eyes”, Theseus responds, “Rather your eyes must with his judgment look. “(57). Theseus has a firm belief that the eyes of lovers are not to be trusted.
That the eye of the lover “… Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt… “(11) is, to him, proof of this. It precisely by enchanting the eyes of the lovers that the faeries manage to create so much mayhem: “Flower of this purple dye, hit with cupid’s archery, sink in apple of his eye! When his love he doth espy, let her shine as gloriously as the Venus of the sky. “(III,ii,101-7) Puck doesn’t change Helena’s nature, nor does he change her features. When Lysander wakes, he beholds the same Helena that he’s always despised and suddenly he is enthralled.
For Theseus this is merely caprice and in no means grounded in reality. Theseus doubts even the existence of the faeries, believing the lovers have, at a loss to explain the inexplicable changes of heart they’ve experienced, dreamed them up: “And as imagination bodies forth the forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen turns them into shapes and gives to airy nothing a local habitation and a name. “(14-17) A trick of the light, an abundance of shadows, lack of sleep, an overactive imagination or any one of these or million other causes are the most likely explanation.
In equating lovers, poets and lunatics Theseus gets into interesting territory and serves to elevate lovers while he denounces them. The lunatic “… sees more devils than vast hell can hold.. while the poet’s eye “… Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven… “(9-13); thus this same imagination is responsible for both mad ravings and great art. The concrete reality of earth co-exists with both heaven and hell as the Faerie world co-exists with the mortal world. A poet could, just as easily, be a lunatic depending on the nature of his visions.
That lover’s are often (bad) poets, is prime example of this interchangeability. “Such tricks hath strong imagination, that, if it would but apprehend a joy, it comprehends some bringer of that joy; or in the night imagining some fear, how easy is a bush supposed a bear! “(18-22) Theseus describes the faulty and incomplete reasoning employed by poets and lovers alike. Given evidence of some thing, conclusions are made as to the nature of that thing. This usually incorrect conclusion, having been reached, is followed by madcap mix-ups and hilarity- at least for the audience.
While distrusting the nature of love and its effect on people, Theseus also recognizes the salutary effect it has, as Demetrius and Lysander, once bitter foes, present themselves to him as friends. He allows the lovers to marry according to their affection and betrays his own affection and appreciation for the intoxicating draught called love, “Here come the lovers, full of joy and mirth. Joy, gentle friends, go and fresh days of love accompany your hearts! “(V,i,28-30)