"A Midsummer Night's Dream," written in 1600, has been called one of William Shakespeare's greatest love plays. It has been interpreted as a romantic story in which love ultimately conquers all odds, but it's actually about the importance of power, sex, and fertility, not love. Shakespeare's concepts of love are represented by the powerless young lovers, the meddling fairies and their magical love, and forced love as opposed to chosen love.
These points undermine the argument that this play is a typical love story and fortify the case that Shakespeare intended to demonstrate the powers that triumph over love.
Power vs. Love
The first concept presented of love is its powerlessness, represented by the “true” lovers. Lysander and Hermia are the only characters in the play who are really in love. Yet their love is forbidden, by Hermia's father and Duke Theseus. Hermia's father Egeus speaks of Lysander's love as witchcraft, saying of Lysander, “this man hath bewitched the bosom of my child” and “with feigning voice verses of feigning love… stol'n the impression of her fantasy.” These lines maintain that true love is an illusion, a false ideal.
Egeus goes on to say that Hermia belongs to him, proclaiming, “she is mine, and all my right of her / I do estate unto Demetrius.” These lines demonstrate the lack of power that Hermia and Lysander's love holds in the presence of familial law. Furthermore, Demetrius tells Lysander to “yield / Thy crazéd title to my certain right,” which means that a father must give his daughter only to the worthiest suitor, regardless of love.
Finally, Hermia and Lysander's eventual wedlock is due to two things: fairy intervention and noble decree. The fairies enchant Demetrius to fall in love with Helena, freeing Theseus to allow Hermia and Lysander's union. With his words, “Egeus, I will overbear your will, / For in the temple, by and by, with us / These couples shall eternally be knit,” the duke is proving that it is not love that is responsible for joining two people, but the will of those in power. Even for true lovers, it isn't love that conquers, but power in the form of royal decree.
Weakness of Love
The second idea, the weakness of love, comes in the form of fairy magic. The four young lovers and an imbecilic actor are entangled in a love game, puppet-mastered by Oberon and Puck. The fairies' meddling causes both Lysander and Demetrius, who were fighting over Hermia, to fall for Helena. Lysander's confusion leads him to believe he hates Hermia; he asks her, “Why seek'st thou me? Could not this make thee know / the hate I bear thee made me leave thee so?” That his love is so easily extinguished and turned to hatred shows that even a true lover's fire can be put out by the feeblest wind.
Furthermore, Titania, the powerful fairy goddess, is bewitched into falling in love with Bottom, who has been given a donkey's head by mischievous Puck. When Titania exclaims “What visions have I seen! / Methought I was enamored of an ass,” we are meant to see that love will cloud our judgment and make even the normally level-headed person do foolish things. Ultimately, Shakespeare makes the point that love cannot be trusted to withstand any length of time and that lovers are made into fools.
Finally, Shakespeare provides two examples of choosing powerful unions over amorous ones. First, there is the tale of Theseus and Hippolyta. Theseus says to Hippolyta, “I wooed thee with my sword / And won thy love doing thee injuries.” Thus, the first relationship that we see is the result of Theseus claiming Hippolyta after defeating her in battle. Rather than courting and loving her, Theseus conquered and enslaved her. He creates the union for solidarity and strength between the two kingdoms.
Next is the example of Oberon and Titania, whose separation from each other results in the world becoming barren. Titania exclaims, “The spring, the summer / The childing autumn, angry winter, change / Their wonted liveries, and the mazéd world / By their increase, now knows not which is which.” These lines make it clear that these two must be joined in consideration not of love but of the fertility and health of the world.
The subplots in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" demonstrate Shakespeare's dissatisfaction with the idea of love as a supreme power and his belief that power and fertility are the prime factors in deciding a union. The images of greenery and nature throughout the story, as when Puck speaks of Titania and Oberon meeting neither “in grove or green, / By fountain clear, or spangled starlight sheen” further suggest the importance that Shakespeare places on fertility. Also, the fairy presence within Athens at the end of the play, as sung by Oberon, suggests that lust is the enduring power and without it, love cannot last: “Now, until the break of day / Through this house each fairy stray / To the best bride-bed will we / Which by us shall blessed be.”
Ultimately, Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" suggests that believing only in love, creating bonds based on a fleeting notion rather than on lasting principles such as fertility (offspring) and power (security), is to be “enamored of an ass.”