“Peradventure, to make it the more gracious, I shall sing it at her death”: Love and Death in A Midsummer Night’s Dream
The first intriguing question is: who is “her” in the final line? Sparknotes, in their No Fear Shakespeare series, suggests that the “her” refers to Thisbe, the character that Flute is about to portray in their play before Theseus and Hippolyta, and the ballet (which here means “ballad” not the dance) will follow Thisbe’s death at the end of the play. It makes sense, but I cannot support it. Never mind that he would never have the time needed to write and rehearse this ballet, but in the following scene, he refers to Pyramus and Thisbe as “our play.”
So why would he refer to it as “a play” in his soliloquy? Moreover, he says that he will sing the ballad “before the duke,” not at the wedding.
But then we jump to III.ii and death stops acting as a hyperbolic vehicle for love and takes its own shape. When Demetrius (in love with Hermia at this point) confronts her, she says to him:
The dramatic irony of this scene reveals that Lysander is not dead, and therefore there is no real tragedy. That being said, that Hermia could think this reveals something about Demetrius’ character. Behind the lovesick follies of these young lovers lost in the green space lies their Athenian roots. And Demetrius seems to share some commonalities with a close contemporary, the County Paris. An upright man - a man of wax - that a good lawful man like Egeus would want for his daughter, Hermia. And one who could do something like kill Lysander with no remorse. Demetrius further perpetuates this when Hermia asks him to bring her Lysander:
Again, Demetrius knows, and we know, that he has not killed Lysander, but his character is intensified by the spark of villainy that love creates. Lysander absurdly declares that he will run through fire for Helena’s love, but Demetrius, without the excuse of a magic flower, is believed to be and desires to be a murderer for love.
The drama grows throughout the scene as Demetrius and Lysander vie for Helena’s love, concluding in what would have been a fight to the death. Meanwhile, Hermia prepares to savagely tear Helena apart, leaving Helena as the only character not consumed by violence.
The action in the forest is kept safely within the realm of comedy by Oberon’s magic. We are safe, as audience members, knowing that the supernatural authority figure is watching over everyone and will not let tragedy strike. However, we have to look at what the flower really represents, and how much it truly transforms people.
Hermia is not affected by the magic at all, but is perfectly willing to be killed when she thinks Lysander is dead, and to kill Helena (or at least hurt her) when she thinks Helena has stolen Lysander. Demetrius was unfaithful long before entering the forest. Helena informs us that:
ere Detrius look'd on Hermia's eyie,
He hail'd down oaths that he was only mine;
And when this hail some heat from Hermia felt,
So he dissolved, and showers of oaths did melt. (I.i)
Even though Demetrius is presented as one who could have killed Lysander, Lysander is the more brazen in front of the Duke at the start of the play, and willing to flout the law by eloping with Hermia. In the forest, under the influence of the flower, he is still the more brazen and far more violent in his hatred of Hermia than Demetrius is. While Helena, also not transformed, is not prone to violence, she risks her reputation and name. Demetrius tells Helena:
You do impeach your modesty too much,
To leave the city and commit yourself
Into the hands of one that loves you not;
To trust the opportunity of night
And the ill counsel of a desert place
With the rich worth of your virginity. (II.i)
And Helena corroborates this sentiment when she paints herself as Daphne chasing Apollo: a play on a Greek tale in which Apollo chased Daphne against her will. While not violent, Helena represents the unbridled sexual passion that became the subject of several tragic novels, such as Clarissa, and Tess of the D’Urbervilles. All without magic.
While the comedy of this play is ever present, A Midsummer Night’s Dream strains towards tragedy, plucking the ills of young love that we see play out in Romeo and Juliet, and placing them in a protective space. So we can laugh at Helena chasing Demetrius, or Lysander’s cruelty towards Hermia, or Hermia and Helena’s heightened confrontation – but as we laugh at the jokes and the absurdities, we realize that we are laughing at ultimately tragic situations. And as Bottom realizes in his epiphany, it is tragedy or death that makes comedy more glorious.
You can take away the comedy of this play and be left with an interesting musing on love, as Peter Sellars (not that one) demonstrated in his 2014 production at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. But if you remove the tragedy or drama from this play, you are left with little more than the mechanicals’ production of Pyramus and Thisbe at the end of the play.
The meta-play of Pyramus and Thisbe at the end is a well-constructed microcosm of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It exists in paradoxes as a tedious brief merry tragedy.
A play there is, my lord, some ten words long,
Which is as brief as I have known a play;
But by ten words, my lord, it is too long,
Which makes it tedious; for in all the play
There is not one word apt, one player fitted:
And tragical, my noble lord, it is;
For Pyramus therein doth kill himself.
Which, when I saw rehearsed, I must confess,
Made mine eyes water; but more merry tears
The passion of loud laughter never shed. (V.i)
In this way, Pyramus and Thisbe exists in Romeo’s world of
brawling love! O loving hate!
O any thing, of nothing first create!
O heavy lightness! serious vanity!
Mis-shapen chaos of well-seeming forms!
Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire,
sick health!s (Rom I.i)
It is a world where the absurdities (the unjustified tragedies) is painted over by comedy. Everything in the play is absurd, and should be played as such, but within the absurdities lies some true sentiments.
As ridiculous as Bottom is as Pyramus – full of exaggerations and malapropisms, Hippolyta says: