The two frustrated lovers try to comfort each other. They speak in a poetic, almost courtly manner, trading clever lines and poetic imagery back and forth. The style reflects the content here. They speak the way conventional romantic characters do. But how appropriate is that to their current situation, dangerous and distressing as it is? Does their reliance on stock romantic speech get in the way of their real feelings, instead of express them? What\'s real or true is hard to see and, as Lysander explains, \"the course of true love never did run smooth.\" \"O hell!\" responds Hermia, sticking with her theme, \"To choose love by another\'s eyes!\" Both feel that happiness in love is fleeting, but agree to take the challenge of making it endure.
Lysander tells Hermia of a secret plan. He has an aunt who lives outside Athens and who looks on him as a son. Lysander proposes that he and Hermia flee the city and live together in marriage at his aunt\'s house, free from the cruel Athenian law. Both agree to meet the following night in the woods outside of town and to put their plan of elopement into action. Hermia swears repeatedly that she will meet Lysander there. She gets carried away in her romantic poetic flight, swearing by several \"broken\" vows as well as true ones. We understand what she\'s saying, but her examples don\'t really inspire much confidence in the success of romantic entanglement. In spite of the possible deadly consequences of the couple\'s actions, Shakespeare is reminding us we are in a comic situation.
Suddenly Hermia enters, the picture of frustration. Where Hermia and Lysander are caught up in their mutual love, Helena bears testimony for love\'s other side, its false side. She is miserable that Demetrius loves Hermia rather than her, and explains how she would willingly change places with Hermia, wishing her voice could be Hermia\'s and \"my eye your eye.\"
But Helena and Hermia do not trade places. Instead, they trade rhymed lines back and forth, comparing their situations. Hermia frowns on Demetrius, who nevertheless still loves her; Helena wishes her smiles could elicit such a good reaction. Hermia curses him and still he loves her; Helena wishes her prayers could bring the same results. Their romantic plight, signaled by the high poetic style, is undercut by the perfect fit of their comically mismatched desires.
NOTE: THE FOUR LOVERS Many readers have complained that the four Athenian lovers are difficult to tell apart and are not very richly characterized. It may be that the ways in which they are alike are more important than the ways in which they are different. Watch how they become even more interchangeable through the course of the play. Do you think they are meant to represent lovers in general, rather than four particular people?
Though Hermia and Helena are drawn as opposites, we do not get very much physical or emotional detail about them. But their situation highlights their opposition, their differences. They are connected by, yet also placed in opposition by, their mutually frustrated desires. In the passage about Demetrius, the end rhymes make us feel the young women are connected, yet the fact that one has what she doesn\'t want but the other does shows us how they are opposed. That they are lovers aligns them. Love\'s inconstancy sets them apart. The plot gives them their definition: they are alternately frustrated and mated.
To give Helena a little comfort--and a little hope--Hermia tells her of their plan to elope. Lysander explains that when the moon rises the next night (the moon is to light their way, but its enchanted beams can mislead as well as lead, as they will discover), he and Hermia will leave the city. Helena knows the meeting place. She and Hermia used to play and embroider there as children and opened their hearts to each other. Shakespeare reminds you, with these details of their past, that there are several kinds of love. The love the two women shared as children will be tested by the new love they both now seek. Lysander and Hermia exit.
Helena is left alone with her unhappiness and is quick to spell it out for you. Imagine yourself in Helena\'s position. How would your frustration color your thoughts? Her soliloquy is worth examining closely because in it she touches on several of the play\'s themes. First Helena complains that throughout Athens she is thought to be as pretty as Hermia. Why doesn\'t Demetrius agree? He, instead, dotes on \"Hermia\'s eyes.\" Here the problem with seeing is doubled: eyes can bewitch eyes. Demetrius can no longer see what everyone else in Athens can. But Helena is in a similar predicament. Though she resents Demetrius, she also loves him. Why?
Things base and vile, holding no quantity,
Love can transpose to form and dignity.
(I, i, 232-33)
The eyes of love are selective and transforming. They can see beauty where beauty is, but they can also mistake ugliness for beauty. Keep this power of love in mind; Titania will be seriously under its influence when she confronts Bottom wearing his ass\'s head.
But love is even more complex than that. In fact, says Helena, love doesn\'t see \"with the eyes, but with the mind.\" And that is why Cupid is said to be blind, shooting his arrows aimlessly. The eyes of lovers do not merely transform the object of their desire; sometimes they don\'t really see it at all! (That is Demetrius\' problem with Helena. He can no longer see her.) And, adds Helena, love is a child because it can be so easily \"beguiled.\" All the oaths that Demetrius once swore to Helena are worth nothing now. The way Helena describes it, love is something like looking in a hall of mirrors. There are reflections behind reflections behind reflections, and it\'s not easy to tell the real from the false. The lover\'s eyes can see what isn\'t there, yet not see what is there. The mind can play tricks on the eyes, and the eyes, on the mind. Most importantly, love has the power to transform. Under its rule, appearance and reality become one. This idea recurs throughout the entire play (if you can only see it!).
NOTE: Another thing that challenges our perceptions about appearance and reality is the theater itself. If you keep in mind that, ideally, you would be watching a play instead of reading it, you will be able to appreciate another layer of meaning in A Midsummer Night\'s Dream. The theater, like romantic love, has the power to enchant our eyes and transform what we see.