Study Guide

A Midsummer Night's Dream Foolishness and Folly

By William Shakespeare

Foolishness and Folly

Act 1, Scene 1
Hermia

HERMIA
By all the vows that ever men have broke
(In number more than ever women spoke),
In that same place thou hast appointed me,
To-morrow truly will I meet with thee. (1.1.178-181)

Shakespeare pokes a bit of fun here at love—men break vows faster than women can make them.  Not only does Hermia know this, she chooses to swear on it.  For Shakespeare, one thing that you can depend on in love is the foolishness it brings.

Helena

HELENA
But herein mean I to enrich my pain,
To have his sight thither and back again. (1.1.256-257)

Helena wants to see Demetrius, even if it is only to have him scorn her.  In love, Helena shows complete foolishness and lack of judgment regarding whom she gives her affection to.

Theseus

THESEUS
Therefore, fair Hermia, question your desires,
Know of your youth, examine well your blood,
Whether (if you yield not to your father's choice)
You can endure the livery of a nun,
For aye to be shady cloister mewed,
To live a barren sister all your life,
Chanting faint hymns to the cold fruitless moon.
Thrice-blessed they that master so their blood
To undergo such maiden pilgrimage,
But earthlier happy is the rose distilled
Than that which withering on the virgin thorn,
Grows, lives, and dies, in single blessedness. (1.1.169-180)

Theseus explains to Hermia what her options are, but thinks that a vow of chastity would be a poor choice.  For Theseus, choosing love over practicality is foolishness.

Act 1, Scene 2
Peter Quince

QUINCE
Marry, our play is "The most lamentable comedy and most
cruel death of Pyramus and Thisbe."

BOTTOM
A very good piece of work, I assure you, and a merry. (1.2.11-15)

Bottom's misspeakings and misunderstandings are a running joke in the play, but sometimes from items like this, you get the sense that he is really oblivious. The Mechanicals are usually the butt of the joke, but they seem to be happily having their own fun here.  In some cases foolishness can be a source of enjoyment, at least when paired with ignorance.

Act 2, Scene 1
Puck (a.k.a. Robin Goodfellow)

PUCK
Through the forest have I gone,
But Athenian found I none
On whose eyes I might approve
This flower's force in stirring love.
Night and silence! Who is here? (2.2.72-76)

When Puck dumps the love juice in the wrong guy's eyes, we're reminded that even fairies are prone to foolish mistakes.

Demetrius

DEMETRIUS
You do impeach your modesty too much
To leave the city and commit yourself
Into the hands of one that loves you not,
To trust the opportunity of night
And the ill counsel of a desert place
With the rich worth of your virginity. (2.1.221-226)

Once again, we see love causing characters to act foolishly.

Act 3, Scene 1
Bottom

BOTTOM
I see their knavery.  This is to make an ass of 
me, to fright me, if they could. (3.1.122-123) 

Of course, when Bottom accuses his friends of trying to "make an ass" of him, it's funny to us because we know something that Bottom doesn't—he literally has been made into an ass.  (Also, his name, Bottom, becomes very fitting.) 

Titania

TITANIA
On the first view to say, to swear, I love thee.

BOTTOM
Methinks, mistress, you should have little
reason for that. And yet, to say the truth, reason
and love keep little company together nowadays. (3.1.143-146)

Here we see Shakespeare's usual little trick where the fool of the play is sometimes given to the wisest insights. Here, Bottom sums up Titania's silliness by pointing out that there's no reason for her to be in love with him.

Act 3, Scene 2
Puck (a.k.a. Robin Goodfellow)

PUCK
Captain of our fairy band,
Helena is here at hand,
And the youth mistook by me,
Pleading for a lover's fee.
Shall we their fond pageant see?
Lord, what fools these mortals be! (3.2.112-117)

Though the Athenian lovers are suffering, for an observer like Puck, the lovers' foolishness is source of entertainment.

Hermia

HERMIA
"Puppet!" why so? Ay, that way goes the game.
Now I perceive that she hath made compare
Between our statures; she hath urg'd her height,
And with her personage, her tall personage,
Her height, forsooth, she hath prevail'd with him.
And are you grown so high in his esteem
Because I am so dwarfish and so low?
How low am I, thou painted maypole? Speak!
How low am I? I am not yet so low
But that my nails can reach unto thine eyes. (3.2.304-313)

Hermia believes Lysander has fallen out of love with her simply because she is short.  Here we see the folly of the female characters' behavior—without the excuse of enchantment that the males can claim.