Welcome to the Dark Side
It is probably a minor misnomer to call the Shakespearean Comedies, actual comedies in the common sense of the term. The lighter themes that the plays seem to be based on wake way for much darker motifs as the plays progress, a darkness that cannot be ignored. In Taming of the Shrew, the prevalence of the misogyny and male dominance over females over rule and kill off the joy that is felt at the marriage at the end of the play. With A Midsummer Night's Dream, the ideas of the darker side of love, the loss of personal identity and somewhat fuzzy line dividing dreams and reality.
Taming of the Shrew is Shakespeare as his most misogynistic, perhaps irredeemably so, there's no getting around it. One woman, Bianca, is sold off, by her father, to the highest bidder, Lucentio, while her sister, Katherina, is forced into a troubled marriage where her husband, Petruchio, deprives her of food and drink in order to break her spirit. There are plenty of lines on women knowing their place and Kate's long, final speech protesting obedience to her husband is one such notorious example. The outrageous clothing Petruchio wears to his and Kat's wedding, symbolizes his power over her and his complete control. By simply wearing the outfit, he can and does humiliate her all for the purpose of expressing his power over her. There is no doubt that Kate is ashamed to be marrying a man who is dress like Petruchio, but Kate knows that she has no choice if she does not wish to become a spinster. Thus Kate allows the ceremony to proceed as though everything were normal, even with Petruchio dressed like as a fool, and thus yields to his authority even before her ‘taming.' The outfit also symbolizes the temporary nature of clothing, declaring that Kate is marrying him, Petruchio, not his clothes or what his clothes may look like or mean, stating that the man wearing the clothes is not the same as the clothing itself (Hodgdon 538-53). Thus, Lucentio, disguised as a tutor, cannot escape the fact that he must return to his true identity, that of a student. By the same token, when Kate plays the role of a obedient wife near the end of the play, she remains, at her core, Kate the Shrew. And yet, despite all of these ever more dark examples, the play is meant to be a comedy.
It is Kate's submission to Petruchio that makes him a man, finally and indisputably. This is the action toward which the whole plot drives, and if one were to consider its significance for Petruchio and his fellows, the realization of the myth of feminine weakness, which prescribes that women ought to or must inevitably submit to man's superior authority, masks a contrary myth: that only a woman has the power to authenticate a man. Only by acknowledging man as woman's master does authentication take place. Petruchio's mind may change often, but what is important to the story is that Kate must confirm these changes; moreover, that she do so willingly and consciously. Such voluntary surrender is, paradoxically, part of the myth of female power, which assigns to woman the crucial responsibility for creating a mature and socially respectable man.
As a semi-romantic comedy, Taming of the Shrew centers on the romantic relationships between men and women as they form from initial interest into marriage. In this respect, and only this respect, the play, as a whole, is a normal romantic comedy. However, unlike other comedies, Shakespearean or otherwise, The Taming of the Shrew does not cease its exploration of love and marriage with a wedding. Rather, the play peers significantly into the future lives of the three married couples. This peering that serves to enrich the exploration of the social dimension of love. Unlike in Romeo and Juliet, inner emotional desire plays only a secondary role in The Taming of the Shrew's exploration of love (Hodgdon 538-53). Instead, The Taming of the Shrew, in a rather cynical manner, emphasizes the economic aspects of marriage—more specifically, how economic and social stature determined who married whom during Shakespeare's time. The play tends to explore romantic relationships from a social perspective, with the emotional perspective almost entirely unexamined, addressing the customs of courtship and marriage rather than deal with the inner passions of lovers as are examined in Romeo and Juliet. Moreover, the play focuses on how courtship affects not just the lovers, but also their respective parents, servants, and friends. “In general terms, the husband and the wife conduct the marriage relationship after the wedding, the courting relationship is negotiated between the future husband and the father of the future wife, the woman being given away left entirely out of the picture (Hodgdon 538-53).” As such, marriage became a transaction involving the transfer of money instead of being the joining of two lovers, as is the modern schema. Lucentio wins Bianca's heart, but is only given permission to marry her after he is able to convince Baptista, Bianca's father, that he is filthy rich, when, in reality, he is not. If only to emphasize how marriage did not consider love, had Hortensio offered more money to the Baptista, he would have married Bianca, regardless of whether she loved Lucentio or anyone else for that matter..
Male dominance is one thematic element found in A Midsummer Night's Dream, one of many. Shakespearean comedies often include a portion in which the women enjoy more power and freedom than they actually possess. In A Midsummer Night's Dream, Lysander and Hermia, followed by Demetrius and Helena, escape into the woods for a night where they are not ruled by the laws of Duke Theseus or the Egeus's, Hermia's father demands. It is only on the couples' arrival back into Athens, that the couples are married. For in this society, marriage is considered the ultimate social achievement for women, the highest honor, while men, on the other hand, “can go on to do many other great things and gain social notoriety without the need, or want, of a wife (Robinson 380-91).” Attention must to be drawn to male and female gender roles and norms present in the comedy in connection with Elizabethan culture. In reference to the festive conclusion of A Midsummer Night's Dream, the triple wedding, whose success depends upon the process by which feminine pride and power that is manifest in “angry wives; Amazonian warriors, over-protective mothers, and disobedient daughters” are brought under the control of their respective lords and husbands (Robinson 380-391). For in the consummation of the marriage is the process by which power over a woman changes from the hands of her father to those of her husband. The connection between flowers and female sexuality must be drawn and emphasized. The juice used by Oberon to trick his wife, Titania, can be seen as two symbols, either symbolizing menstrual blood or as the sexual blood that is shed by virgins. The difference in the two symbols is that while “blood as a result of menstruation is representative of a woman's power, blood as a result of a first sexual encounter represents man's power over women (Hodgdon 179-96).”
By emphasizing the theme of male dominion over females in the very essence of the play, Shakespeare prepares the “reader's mind to accept the fantastic reality of the fairy world, its magical happenings and residents (Hodgdon 179-96).” This also seems to be the axis around which the plot conflicts in the play occur. Hodgdon suggests that it is this dissolving of individual identity that leads to the central conflict in the story. The argument between Oberon and Titania, one such example of the loss of identity, their conflict is based on a lack of recognition for one another in their relationship, a fact that drives the majority of the drama in the story and makes it dangerous for the other couples to come together due to the disturbance in the balance of nature caused by the fairy clash (Hodgdon 179-96). Similarly, this failure to identify and to distinguish is what leads Puck to mistake one set of eloping lovers for the other and place the juice of the flower on Lysander's eyes instead of his actual target, Demetrius's.
The loss of identity is especially played out in the description of the craftsmen and their assumption of other identities. In describing the occupations of the acting troupe, Shakespeare writes “Two construct or put together, two mend and repair, one weaves and one sews. All join together what is apart or mend what has been rent, broken, or sundered. (Shakespeare ***).” In Taylor's opinion, this loss of individual identity not only blurs specificities, it creates new identities found only in community, which Taylor points out, may lead to some understanding of Shakespeare's opinions on love and marriage. Further, that the craftsmen understand this theme, to some minor degree, as they take on their individual roles for a corporate performance of Pyramus and Thisbe and the marriage ceremony of Duke Theseus. Taylor also remarks that “To be an actor is to double and divide oneself, to discover oneself in two parts: both oneself and not oneself, both the part and not the part (Taylor 259-73).” He claims that the craftsmen understand this idea and that each character within their group, especially between the lovers portrayed in their production of Pyramus and Thisbe, has some sense of laying down their individual identity for the greater good of the group and the performance. It is the desire to lose one's individuality, what makes a person who they are, and find a new identity in the love of another is what quietly moves the events of A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Even with the knowledge that love is a light and warm emotion, one cannot ignore the “dark side of love” that is presented within the play (Taylor 259-73). First, there is the fact that the fairies, as a whole, make light of love by mistaking the lovers, even though it is accidental, and by applying a love potion to Titania's eyes, thus forcing her to fall in love with Bottom as a ass. In the ‘real world' forest, both couples are met by problems that stem from the fairies' tricks. Hermia and Lysander are both meet the Puck, as he is called, whose tricks and interactions with the other characters to provide the comedic relief in the play, amking the reader or viewer forget the encroaching darkness. Taylor writes, “love is sincere, [and] yet deceives and is deceived; it imagines itself to be firm and constant, and turns out to be fragile and fleeting”. This passage, just like the play, contrasts, in close proximity, one antonymic idea next to another. The play is a comedy, yet it harbors serious and very dark ideas that cannot be ignored. At the end of the play, Hermia and Lysander, happily married along with the other two couples, watch the play about the unfortunate lovers, Pyramus and Thisbe, performed by the loveable and bumbling craftsmen, and are able to enjoy and laugh about the play, not realizing the similarities between them and the tragic characters being enacted. And, although their story is very similar to that of Pyramus and Thisbe, it does not end in tragic death. Both, Hermia and Lysander are oblivious to the darker side of their love and are blissfully ignorant of the possible outcome that could have taken place within the forest (Taylor 259-73).
The idea of contrast is the foundation of A Midsummer Night's Dream. The entirety of the play is constructed around groups of opposites and doubles pared with on another. Nearly every characteristic and character “presented in the play has an opposite: Helena is tall, Hermia is short; Titania is beautiful, Bottom is grotesque; Puck plays pranks, Bottom is the victim of pranks. (Robinson 380-91)” Furthermore, the main groups of characters, the fairies and the lovers, all of whom are derived from sources as vast and varied as “Greek mythology, English folklore, and classical literature, are designed to contrast powerfully with one another: the fairies are graceful and magical, while the craftsmen, the actors, are clumsy and earthy; the craftsmen are merry and fun loving, while the lovers are overly serious. (Robinson 380-91)” Contrast serves as the defining characteristic of A Midsummer Night's Dream, with the play's most unforgettable image being that of the beautiful, delicate Titania weaving flowers into the hair of the ass-headed Bottom as the two of them enumerate on their love. It seems impossible to imagine two figures less compatible with each other, two characters in a more direct contrast. The combination and opposition of extraordinary differences is the most important characteristic of the play's surreal atmosphere and is thus perhaps the play's central motif; “there is no scene in which extraordinary contrast is not present (Robinson 380-91).” It is in this contrast that we find the darkness, for only in comparison to the light hearted does the darkness become more emphasized and take a more serious role in interpretation.
Victor Kiernan, a Marxist scholar and historian, writes “that it is for the greater sake of love that this loss of identity takes place and that individual characters are made to suffer accordingly: ‘It was the more extravagant cult of love that struck sensible people as irrational, and likely to have dubious effects on its acolytes.”' Kiernan goes on to assert that he finds “that [the] identities in the play are not so much lost as they are blended together to create a type of haze through which distinction becomes nearly impossible (Kiernan 210-12).” This blending is driven by the desire for new and more practical ties between characters, ties that function as an anchor to reality in the strange world within the forest. Even in relationships as weird and seemingly improbable as the brief love shared connecting Titania and Bottom as the ass. It was the overwhelming force of this societal need, not actual love nor the real identity of Bottom; that lent energy to these odd relationships and sustained them, for however short a period.
Just as the title suggests, dreams play an important role in A Midsummer Night's Dream; they link the bizarre, magical mishaps in the forest to the ‘real world' of the two couples. Hippolyta's first words in the play evidence the pervasiveness of dreams; “Four days will quickly steep themselves in night, / Four nights will quickly dream away the time,” not to mention that several other characters frequently mention dreams throughout the play (Shakespeare I.i.7–8 ***). The theme of dreaming recurs mainly when the couples are discovered the morning after the events within the forest and attempt to explain bizarre events that lead to them being found. Bottom puts it best by saying: “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 (Shakespeare ***),” unable to comprehend the magical events that involved him, as a result of Oberon's trick on Titania, were real and not the result of slumber (Lewis 251-58). Shakespeare also expresses interest in the literal workings of dreams, not in just the images but “how events occur without explanation, how time loses its natural sense of flow, and the impossible occurs as a matter of course (Lewis 251-58).” Shakespeare seeks to recreate this unstable and unpredictable environment found in dreams in the play through the intervention of the fairies inside the magical forest. By the end of the play, Puck extends the idea of dreams to the audience members themselves, saying that, if they have been offended by the play, they should remember it as nothing more than a dream (Shakespeare ***). This sense of illusion and fragility is crucial to the meaning of A Midsummer Night's Dream, as it denounces the normal sense of reality by giving the audience the escape from the meaning of the play.
Even the most lighthearted of closings on a much loved comedy by William Shakespeare can harbor the darkest of secrets. Taming of the Shrew and A Midsummer Night's Dream, comedies both, and yet even with the ‘happy ending' there is the hint of darkness. As such, the proximity of the light with the dark brings even more emphasis onto the dark and that emphasis cannot be ignored, else we lose the deeper meaning behind the plays themselves. Rampant misogyny, the loss of personal identity, the darker side of love and ever thinner line that divides the fantastical and the real are only some of the themes that are easily to overlook and loose to the story.