The conversation about A Midsummer Night's Dream and King Lear continues with another essay by one of the students from the fall semester Shakespeare class, taught by Dr. Creighton Lindsay. Daniel, a Pre-Theology student studying for the Diocese of Boise and one of the MAS Journalism students, wrote a story on the trip to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival this fall.
Evidence of Love
by Daniel Miller
No subject has captivated more writers, poets, musicians, and individuals than love. No story seems complete without a romantic aspect attached. No playwright composes without a touch of passion involved. Shakespeare is no exception. Indeed, his writings surge with statements on love – its power, folly, breadth, depth, and enduring mystery. In King Lear and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the treatment of love is varied – familial and somber in the first, romantic, witty, and fanciful in the other. What emerges is an understanding of love parallel to Roman Catholic teaching: The sense that feelings may be fleeting, but to love completely is to act and positively will—often sacrificially—the good of another.
The eyes play a critical role in Shakespeare’s depiction of love. Eyes act as a gateway to love, but beyond initial attraction, using the eyes (or any senses) as a guide invites foolishness. The four young lovers in A Midsummer Night’s Dream find themselves in confused love triangles as they circle through a forest enchanted by mischievous fairies that place potion on their eyes, casting spells that create attraction to mistaken partners. In King Lear, Gloucester loses his eyes because of his ongoing allegiance to Lear. In his blindness, Gloucester feels hopeless, but his son Edgar’s devoted love helps his father experience some semblance of clarity late in the play. Gloucester remarks, “Our means secure us, and our mere defects / Prove our commodities” (IV.i.21-22). The eyes may be a fit pilot for trudging through the forest and the storm, but as Gloucester and the Athenian youths learn, love needs other bearings.
For a fleeting moment, Helena grasps the deceiving nature of love through the senses when she says, “Love can transpose to form and dignity. / Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind; / And therefore is winged Cupid painted blind” (I.i.239-241). However, before she can end her soliloquy, she hatches an inane plot to tell Demetrius that Hermia is running away, which she somehow thinks will invite him to choose her instead. Helena, like many of the characters in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, cannot escape from irrationality despite acknowledging how flighty love seems when driven by the senses.
Had the retiring monarch had a comparable rational epiphany in the first scene of King Lear, the tragic plot could have been conceivably avoided. Instead, Lear invests deeply in hearing the flattering (or unflattering) expressions of love from his daughters in the first scene. Whereas Goneril and Regan offer sweet but unsubstantiated complements, the daughter Lear loves most, Cordelia, does not charm but is truthful in her expression of affection. Lear exiles Cordelia, setting into motion the rapid downfall of his kingdom and personal life. Even with his faithful servant Kent imploring him to think otherwise, Lear is stung by Cordelia’s lack of flattery and disregards what he knows to be authentic love from his favored daughter.
Repeatedly, Shakespeare emphasizes the madness of sense-driven love. Oberon and Puck trick the fairy queen Titania into becoming infatuated with the ass-headed Bottom. The sly Oswald maneuvers into a potential position of power as he brokers his services between Goneril and Regan. Lear and Gloucester think they have lost the love of their children because of mistaken perception and calculated deception, and they wander in the dark stormy night searching for meaning, for direction, for love.
Where is lasting love to be found? It must be rooted in action, says Shakespeare. The symbols of steadfastness are Kent, Edgar, and Cordelia in King Lear and Theseus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Kent and Edgar go in disguise to keep vigil over their loved ones after they are banished. They suffer humiliation, being thrust into stocks and forced into begging. They endure a driving storm, persist through depravity, and never leave the side of King Lear and Gloucester. Eventually, Cordelia hears of the plight Lear has undergone at the hands of her sisters, and she takes arms to rescue her father. The love of these characters is expressed in the concrete. For the majority of the play, King Lear and Gloucester do not realize the love their allies express, but Kent, Edgar, and Cordelia show fidelity where Oswald, Goneril, Regan, and Edmund offer deceit through their empty words. Catholic teaching reinforces action over feelings. Jesus similarly compels his followers to action if they are to abide in Him. “You are my friends if you do what I command you…This I command you: love one another” (NAB, Jn. 14.14, 14.17, emphasis added). The Catechism of the Catholic Church builds on Christ’s teaching: “By his deliberate actions, the human person does, or does not, conform to the good promised by God and attested by moral conscience” (1700).
The abiding characters of King Lear sacrifice their own good for the wellbeing of the beloved. This is most poignant when the depleted Lear holds the dead Cordelia in his arms, bemoaning his lack of vision in understanding her love for him. He is so intensely demoralized that he falls to his own death beside her. The sacrificial nature of Cordelia’s death and the innocent, ultimately triumphant role of Edgar conjure echoes of Christ’s suffering.
Conversely, Theseus can muse on the essence of love. He is distant from the whimsical happenings in the forest, and when he hears the tails of the Athenian youths, he labels their experiences as shaped by the fog of love’s intoxication. “Lovers and madman have such seething brains, / Such shaping fantasies that apprehend / More than cool reason ever comprehends. / The lunatic, the lover, and the poet / Are of imagination all compact” (V.i.4-8). He does not downgrade the power of love, but he warns of its transient condition.
In a subtle nod to the state of humanity, Shakespeare leaves Demetrius under the spell of love at the conclusion of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He and Helena marry and would seem to have a happy future ahead. But in some ways this unbroken spell reinforces the mystery love inherently carries. Though we may chase it, express it in song, play, film, and art, though it may be rooted in action and choice rather than sound or sight, we never grasp love entirely. Shakespeare knew love’s nature, but even more so, he understood that love remains ever elusive.
Catechism of the Catholic Church. 2nd ed. Vatican: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2000. Print.
New American Bible. Revised Ed. Washington, D.C.: Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, 2010. Online.
Shakespeare, William. King Lear. Ed. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993. Print.
- - -. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Ed. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993. Print.