The ease with which characters’ affections change in the play, so that Lysander is madly in love with Hermia at one point and with Helena at another, has troubled some readers, who feel that Shakespeare profanes the idea of true love by treating it as inconstant and subject to outside manipulation. It is important to remember, however, that while A Midsummer Night’s Dream contains elements of romance, it is not a true love story like Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare’s aim is not to comment on the nature of true love but rather to mock gently the melodramatic afflictions and confusions that love induces. Demetrius, Helena, Hermia, and Lysander are meant not to be romantic archetypes but rather sympathetic figures thrown into the confusing circumstances of a romantic farce.
Like much farce, A Midsummer Night’s Dream relies heavily on misunderstanding and mistaken identity to create its humorous entanglements. Oberon’s unawareness of the presence of a second Athenian couple—Lysander and Hermia—in the forest enables Puck’s mistaken application of the flower’s juice. This confusion underscores the crucial role of circumstance in the play: it is not people who are responsible for what happens but rather fate. In Hamlet and Macbeth, oppositely, Shakespeare forces his characters to make crucial decisions that affect their lives.
Much of the comic tension in this scene (and throughout the rest of the play, as the confusion wrought by the love potion only increases) stems from the fact that the solution to the love tangle seems so simple to the reader/audience: if Demetrius could simply be made to love Hermia, then the lovers could pair off symmetrically, and love would be restored to a point of balance. Shakespeare teases the audience by dangling the magic flower as a simple mechanism by which this resolution could be achieved. He uses this mechanism, however, to cycle through a number of increasingly ridiculous arrangements before he allows the love story to arrive at its inevitable happy conclusion.