William Shakespeare is well-known for commonly utilizing the motif of characters trying to outsmart fate—Macbeth denying the prophecies of the three witches, Romeo and Juliet falling in love when the world is against them, etc.—and this remains true in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. However, this text is likely the one with the most explicit use of the natural world (plants, animals, and humans) directly interacting with the divine world (gods). As a result, the inherent course of the spiritual world is broken and gods themselves metamorphosize into morally-questionable characters: the divine desire to control humans leads to hatred among gods, the craving to mold love with magic instead of fate causes suffering among divine beings, etc. Therefore, in William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the divine attempt to challenge the fate of the natural world causes chaos in the supernatural world—emphasizing the unnaturalness of their interaction.
This unnaturalness is brought to the forefront in Act 2.1, where Oberon recounts his story of watching Cupid shoot his arrow at a mermaid riding a dolphin’s back—hence attempting to disturb fate. Shakespeare opens this retelling by first characterizing the mermaid through vibrant imagery. For example, Oberon states “…I sat upon a promontory and heard a mermaid on a dolphin’s back uttering such dulcet and harmonious breath that the rude sea grew civil at her song and certain stars shot madly from their spheres, to hear the sea-maid’s music” (Shakespeare 2.1.150-154), where peaceful phrases like “dulcet and harmonious breath” are juxtaposed with places that feel eternal, like the sea and stars. This juxtaposition characterizes the mermaid as a force of bliss—a symbol for the natural world in its untouched state. Additionally, while mermaids were often denoted as being half human and half fish, their animalistic ability to hunt others and call them into a trance portrays them as very luring beings (Seth). Thus, whenever Cupid mischievously attempts to strike her and destroy her luring-power with love, he misses, as controlling her would mean offsetting the eternal fate of the natural world. Since this was Cupid’s first time missing his target, the result of his challenging of fate is a newfound imperfection of the divine world and a clearer boundary that both sides should not cross.
The imagery of Cupid challenging fate is also connected to the mermaid’s metaphorical connection to royalty. Shakespeare commonly alluded to real-life figures through non-fictional characters—such as King James in Macbeth—and in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the mermaid is symbolic of Queen Elizabeth I (“An Entertainment for Elizabeth I”). During the later years of her rule, she led England into a period of peace and prosperity, which was often attributed to her relationship with God through divine right (“Elizabeth I”). Therefore, if the mermaid’s power parallels the queen’s leading vision, then Cupid’s fiery “love-shaft” must represent the horrific destruction of that vision. In other words, Shakespeare contrasts the ideas of progress and destruction, draws a line between them, and urges “us”—the people in the natural world—to not disrupt the course of divinely-given peace.
When Cupid attempts to fire his arrow at the mermaid, it ultimately hits a “little western flower”, whose white hue eventually fades into purple—a symbol for the corruption of the divine by the natural world. Shakespeare first sets the scene by describing the color change in detail: “before milk-white, now purple with love’s wound” (Shakespeare 2.1.167-168)—eventually naming the flower “love-in-idleness”. Given that idleness means lazy, love-in-idleness would mean lazy love—a reference to both Cupid and Oberon’s disregardment of fate and use of love as a weapon (Delahoyde). Instead of treating love as it was meant to be treated, they lazily abuse it, and therefore leave the mark of “love’s wound”: a symbol for the unnatural bruise of gods interacting with the natural world. However, this symbol reaches a far wider scope than just two gods. For example, Puck uses love-in-idleness to make Titania fall in love with Bottom and Lysander with Helena. This leads to several wounds that leave complications between characters: hatred between Helena and Hermia, Lysander and Demetrius’ feud, and so forth—causing Oberon and Puck to clumsily deal with fixing their self-created madness. When this symbol is tied back to the story of the mermaid, it perfectly summarizes the motif of defying fate. The mermaid represents true love in its purest, most untouched form, while the love-in-idleness’ color change symbolizes how that pure love can be tempting, and lead to the corruption of the divine.
Oberon’s origin story coupled with the stark characterization it provides also works to contrast him with the mermaid—creating a symbol for the boundary between the worlds. It is speculated that Oberon was derived from a Merovingian legend, where a fairy king named Alberich was defeated by a legendary warrior (“Oberon”). Furthermore, his name comes from the song “Huon de Bordeaux”, where an elf suspected of murder passes through a mystical forest in the hope that Oberon will grant him a pardon (“Oberon”). From these two texts, an important characterization can be made: Oberon is power-hungry—which directly contrasts to the peaceful nature of the mermaid. Moreover, the line “And jealous Oberon would have the child, knight of his train, to trace the forests wild” (Shakespeare 2.1.24-25) proves that his desire for the boy stems from his power-issues, but does so in a somewhat mockingly manner. This could suggest that Oberon and Titania/the boy represent two different worlds: one of bliss and one of vengeance. Just like how Cupid’s shot at the mermaid interacts with the natural world, Oberon’s hatred of Titania leads him to actions that intentionally and unintentionally change the natural world. Thus, the boundary between worlds is crossed and chaos among the gods ensues.
The desire to change fate in the natural world is often visualized by the appearance of animals, which suggests themes of image and power in order to show the unnatural interaction with the divine. For example, the final line of Oberon’s story reads, “…ere the leviathan can swim a league” (2.1.174), which suggests that the leviathan—a large, mutant-like sea monster—can swim further than the mermaid. It is most likely that the leviathan stands as a metaphor for Oberon and the mermaid for Titania , which would mean that he believes that he holds power over her. Furthermore, after Puck leaves, Oberon has a short soliloquy where he announces his plan to make Titania fall in love with a donkey. Here he states, “The next thing then she, walking, looks upon, be it on lion, bear, or wolf, or bull, on meddling monkey, or on busy ape…” (2.1.179-181). Most of these animals were seen as ugly during Shakespeare’s time, which while that connotation is seen as comical among the audience, it nonetheless makes fun of Titania’s character and the chaos she creates (Bach). Therefore, her newfound love of Bottom causes her to embarrassingly recede from the supernatural world and more clearly see the natural one, while Oberon gains more divine power. Oberon’s forcing of Titania to switch worlds, and thus cross the boundary, is presented as unnatural and ugly—suggesting the overarching theme that “the unnatural is ugly”.
The technique of characterizing animals negatively to capture themes of image and power also acts as a method of foreshadowing throughout both A Midsummer Night’s Dream and other Shakespearean texts. As is common in his other works—crows representing the evil actions that take place at night in Macbeth, pigs representing the uncleanliness of Iago’s jealousy in Othello, etc.—animals act as a form of foreshadowing, hinting that something bad is to come (Bach). This often acts as a sign that bad things will arise for those who defy fate. However, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, nothing significantly bad happens to Oberon. After he wakes up, he exclaims “Come, my queen, take hands with me” (Shakespeare 4.1.89)—restoring his relationship with her and establishing an alliance that lasts to the play’s end. One explanation for the lack of foreshadowing could be that because Titania returns to the divine world, she no longer crosses the boundary, causing the unnatural interaction to subside. Her return represents the shift back to the normal balance between worlds—what the mermaid was meant to represent all along. This all accumulates to a theme that is prevalent throughout the narrative: do not try to control the fate of others or harsh consequences will result.
In conclusion, the divine attempt to challenge the fate of the natural world causes divine chaos, which emphasizes the unnaturalness of both worlds interacting. Shakespeare uses imagery, symbolism, and themes to characterize natural and divine figures, setting the stage for the unpleasant outcomes of their eventual meeting. This all ties together to act as a method of persuasion—persuasion of the idea that fate is the ultimate power and all that challenge it are challenging life’s meaning. A Midsummer Night’s Dream truly serves its purpose of being a message on how to view the cruel dynamics of society and the complex essence of the world.