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A Midsummer Night's Dream in the 21st Century
Ask any high school student to describe Shakespeare’s plays. Chances are they will tell you that they are boring, obsolete plays that do not deserve an appearance in contemporary classrooms.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream proves them wrong.
A satirical depiction of the entanglement of love, jealousy, and hatred, with dashes of magical realism, A Midsummer Night’s Dream encapsulates the essence of contemporary society.
After a love potion blurs the character’s senses, Lysander and Demetrius become infatuated with Helena, culminating in an awkward (albeit hilarious) situation in which one character has too many suitors and the other has none. Under the influence of the potion, characters are tormented by love. Relationships are broken or injured, and characters struggle to maintain psychological balance. Using the love potion as a symbol, Shakespeare pokes fun at the essence of romantic relationships: paradoxically, although love is often regarded as inherently positive, it often afflicts pain and torment.
It is also important to note that, at the time the play was written, Hermia’s refusal of her father’s request to marry Demetrius would have been a powerful defiance of patriarchal dominance. In the 15th century, marriages were arranged by parents, and daughters -- especially those in the upper class, like Hermia -- were expected to be obedient and perform their father’s requests without question. But Hermia, despite her father’s pressing threat -- “marry Demetrius or become a nun” -- decides to follow her heart and marry Lysander. Hermia is rebelling against the patriarchal dominance that was widely accepted in the 15th century. It is also interesting to note that Hermia’s decision to “elope” with Lysander echoes Juliet’s decision to marry Romeo in secret. Perhaps their characters’ rejection of community norms is what makes Shakespeare’s play appealing. After all, rebels are favored across time.
Of course, in contemporary society, companionship has replaced economic marriage. As a result, Hermia can no longer be regarded as a rebel. For modern readers, she loses some of her appeal. This is one of the drawbacks of A Midsummer Night’s Dream: designed for an Early Modern audience, the characters display values and engage in conflicts appropriate to their historical moment. However, fast forward into the 21st century, where Netflix has replaced traditional theatre and where democracy has replaced the hierarchy of order, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream seems a little irrelevant to contemporary society at points.
Nevertheless, the play retains its appeal for its complex discussion of the entanglement of love and hate. Perhaps Hermia and Helena have the most complex relationship in the play. Friends since childhood, the two characters share an intimate connection. When Hermia decides to elope with Lysander, the first person the couple decided to share the news with is Helena. However, this intimacy and trust between Hermia and Helena diminishes and, as the play progresses, temporarily disappears. Under the influence of the love potion, both Demetrius and Lysander fall head over heels for Helena. This frustrates Hermia, who feels that Helena is intentionally ruining her relationship with Lysander. Similarly, Helena feels that Lysander and Demetrius are pulling a practical joke on her. She is appalled, flattered, and uncertain what to do. Amid this chaos, the bond between Hermia and Helena, which had been so strong, begins to falter. For an audience that gravitates toward complex plots, the entanglement of love and hatred as demonstrated between Hermia and Helena is more appealing than typical Netflix romance movies that teenagers tend to binge-watch. Ultimately, those shows demonstrate the pattern of an attractive character falling in love with an unattractive character, or a hateful relationship evolving into romance. Not many changes happen, and the conflicts on those shows are always resolved in the formation of a relationship.
Mirroring the quarrels among the Athenian nobles, Titania and Oberon find themselves entangled in a similar situation. Oberon desires a boy until Titania’s protection for himself. Titania refuses. This enrages Oberon. Does this mean that Titania loves the boy more than she loves him? Oberon, determined to secure Titania’s affection for himself, requests that Puck obtain a love potion. Comedy aside, the quarrels among the couples reflect the connection and torment lovers experience. Here, love is depicted as volatile, causing confusion and wariness.
But the appeal of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is not limited to its plots. On a historical level, the play helped pave the way for the advent of individual expression and the break with traditional values. The play was produced in a time that embraced medieval values of religious piety and focused on the afterlife rather. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with its plot entrenched in relationships between individuals, is a blatant rejection of such values. It is also noteworthy that the play helped proliferate the values of humanism and individualism. As countries prospered from overseas trade and exploration, aristocrats and wealthy merchants shifted their focus from dedication to church values to the pursuit of leisure entertainment. They began to recognize individual potential and the value of enjoying the present. Shakespeare’s play is a physical embodiment of such ideas, and as it gained popularity, spread those ideas. The play reflects the shift to secularism, the change that shaped the society today that leans heavily toward consumerism and hedonism.
Ultimately, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a discussion of universal experiences that are relatable across time and place. Despite being written almost 500 years ago, Like Hermia and Helena, people in contemporary society bicker with their friends over frivolous disagreements. Like Lysander and Demetrius, young suitors fall head over heels. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a discussion of the past, the present, and the future.