Ay me, for aught that I could ever read,
Could ever hear by tale or history,
The course of true love never did run smooth. . . .
Lysander speaks these lines to soothe Hermia when she despairs about the difficulties facing their love, specifically, that Egeus, her father, has forbidden them to marry and that Theseus has threatened her with death if she disobeys her father (I.i.132–134). Lysander tells Hermia that as long as there has been true love, there have been seemingly insurmountable difficulties to challenge it. He goes on to list a number of these difficulties, many of which later appear in the play: differences in birth or age (“misgrafted in respect of years”) and difficulties caused by friends or “war, death, or sickness,” which make love seem “swift as a shadow, short as any dream” (I.i.137, I.i.142–144). But, as Hermia comments, lovers must persevere, treating their difficulties as a price that must be paid for romantic bliss. As such, the above lines inaugurate the play’s exploration of the theme of love’s difficulties and presage what lies ahead for Lysander and Hermia: they will face great difficulties but will persevere and ultimately arrive at a happy ending.
Through Athens I am thought as fair as she.
But what of that? Demetrius thinks not so.
He will not know what all but he do know.
And as he errs, doting on Hermia’s eyes,
So I, admiring of his qualities.
Things base and vile, holding no quantity,
Love can transpose to form and dignity.
Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind,
And therefore is winged Cupid painted blind.
Helena utters these lines as she comments on the irrational nature of love. They are extremely important to the play’s overall presentation of love as erratic, inexplicable, and exceptionally powerful (I.i.227–235). Distressed by the fact that her beloved Demetrius loves Hermia and not her, Helena says that though she is as beautiful as Hermia, Demetrius cannot see her beauty. Helena adds that she dotes on Demetrius (though not all of his qualities are admirable) in the same way that he dotes on Hermia. She believes that love has the power to transform “base and vile” qualities into “form and dignity”—that is, even ugliness and bad behavior can seem attractive to someone in love. This is the case, she argues, because “love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind”—love depends not on an objective assessment of appearance but rather on an individual perception of the beloved. These lines prefigure aspects of the play’s examination of love, such as Titania’s passion for the ass-headed Bottom, which epitomizes the transformation of the “base and vile” into “form and dignity.”
Puck makes this declaration in his amazement at the ludicrous behavior of the young Athenians (III.ii.115). This line is one of the most famous in A Midsummer Night’s Dream for its pithy humor, but it is also thematically important: first, because it captures the exaggerated silliness of the lovers’ behavior; second, because it marks the contrast between the human lovers, completely absorbed in their emotions, and the magical fairies, impish and never too serious.
I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream past the wit of man to say what dream it was. Man is but an ass if he go about t’expound this dream. Methought I was—there is no man can tell what. Methought I was, and methought I had—but man is but a patched fool if he will offer to say what methought I had. The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report what my dream was. I will get Peter Quince to write a ballad of this dream. It shall be called ‘Bottom’s Dream’, because it hath no bottom.
Bottom makes this bombastic speech after he wakes up from his adventure with Titania; his human head restored, he believes that his experience as an ass-headed monster beloved by the beautiful fairy queen was merely a bizarre dream (IV.i.199–209). He remarks dramatically that his dream is beyond human comprehension; then, contradicting himself, he says that he will ask Quince to write a ballad about this dream. These lines are important partially because they offer humorous commentary on the theme of dreams throughout the play but also because they crystallize much of what is so lovable and amusing about Bottom. His overabundant self-confidence burbles out in his grandiose idea that although no one could possibly understand his dream, it is worthy of being immortalized in a poem. His tendency to make melodramatic rhetorical mistakes manifests itself plentifully, particularly in his comically mixed-up association of body parts and senses: he suggests that eyes can hear, ears see, hands taste, tongues think, and hearts speak.
If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended:
That you have but slumbered here,
While these visions did appear;
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend.
If you pardon, we will mend.
Puck speaks these lines in an address to the audience near the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, extending the theme of dreams beyond the world of the play and putting the reality of the audience’s experience into question (V.epilogue.1–8). As many of the characters (Bottom and Theseus among them) believe that the magical events of the play’s action were merely a dream, Puck tells the crowd that if the play has offended them, they too should remember it simply as a dream—“That you have but slumbered here, / While these visions did appear.” The speech offers a commentary on the dreamlike atmosphere of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and casts the play as a magical dream in which the audience shares.
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