LYSANDER Ay me! for aught that I could ever read, Could ever hear by tale or history, The course of true love never did run smooth. (1.1.134-136)
This is one of the most famous lines of the play, and for good reason. Lysander's declaration pretty much sums up the play's notion that lovers always face difficult hurdles on the path to happiness—whether it's a disapproving parent, rival lover, or something else. In the play, Shakespeare makes this "love is an obstacle course" metaphor very literal when the young Athenians go chasing each other around the wood in pursuit of love. We're also interested in the way Lysander locates his love for Hermia in a long, rich "tradition." For Lysander, love is epic and the stuff of great literature and history.
LYSANDER Or, if there were a sympathy in choice, War, death, or sickness did lay siege to it, Making it momentary as a sound, Swift as a shadow, short as any dream, Brief as the lightning in the collied night, That, in a spleen, unfolds both heaven and earth, And ere a man hath power to say "Behold!" The jaws of darkness do devour it up. So quick bright things come to confusion. (1.1.143-151)
Here, Lysander lists the obstacles that can separate lovers: "war, death, or sickness." Lysander also knows that, even though love can be explosive like "lightening," it's usually short-lived: "So quick bright things come to confusion."
P.S. The idea that love is transient, by the way, is a major theme in Romeo and Juliet, where Friar Laurence says the following about Romeo's passion: "These violent delights have violent ends" (2.6.1).
LYSANDER Demetrius, I'll avouch it to his head, Made love to Nedar's daughter, Helena, And won her soul; and she, sweet lady, dotes, Devoutly dotes, dotes in idolatry, Upon this spotted and inconstant man. (1.1.108-112)
Hmm. This is interesting. Here, we learn that Demetrius was once engaged ("made love to") to another girl, Helena, before dropping her to be with Hermia. Long before the fairies' love juice causes Demetrius to fall back in love with Helena (2.2; 3.2), we learn that lovers can be fickle and erratic, even without the help of some magic potion.
THESEUS Hippolyta, I woo'd thee with my sword And won thy love doing thee injuries, But I will wed thee in another key, With pomp, with triumph, and with reveling. (1.1.17-20)
Yikes! In the play's opening scene, we discover that Theseus and Hippolyta are about to be married because Theseus conquered Hippolyta and her people (the Amazons). Although Hippolyta seems pretty pleased with the engagement, we're left with the uneasy feeling that Theseus sees love as something that can be won by sheer force. This idea resurfaces again just a few moments later when Theseus determines that a young woman must marry (against her will) the man her father has chosen for her. Otherwise, she'll face the death penalty or life as a celibate nun.
HELENA How happy some o'er other some can be! Through Athens I am thought as fair as she. But what of that? Demetrius thinks not so. He will not know what all but he do know. And as he errs, doting on Hermia's eyes, So I, admiring of his qualities. Things base and vile, holding no quantity, Love can transpose to form and dignity. Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind; And therefore is winged Cupid painted blind. Nor hath Love's mind of any judgment taste. Wings and no eyes figure unheedy haste. (1.1.232-243)
When Helena admits that she loves many of Demetrius's "base and vile" qualities, she recognizes that her love has made her "blind" in that her judgment has been skewed by her passion. This idea resurfaces throughout the play, especially when Titania literally falls in love with a "base and vile" creature—an "ass."
We also want to point out that Helena is acting a little immature here when she complains that most people think she's prettier than Hermia. Apparently, love also makes us self-absorbed.
EGEUS Full of vexation come I, with complaint Against my child, my daughter Hermia.—
Stand forth, Demetrius.—My noble lord, This man hath my consent to marry her.—
Stand forth, Lysander.—And my gracious duke, This man hath bewitch'd the bosom of my child.—
Thou, thou, Lysander, (1.1.23-29)
Here, we learn that Hermia and Lysander are in love but unable to marry because Hermia's father (Egeus) has engaged her to another man (Demetrius). Still, the play is sympathetic toward a young person's right to choose a marriage partner based on love and not the whims and desires of parents. (Shakespeare returns to this subject in several other plays like Romeo and Juliet, The Merchant of Venice, and The Taming of the Shrew.)
Act 2, Scene 1
OBERSON Fetch me that flower; the herb I shew'd thee once. The juice of it on sleeping eye-lids laid Will make or man or woman madly dote Upon the next live creature that it sees. (2.1.175-178)
As Oberon explains here, when the magic love juice is sprinkled into someone's eyes, it causes the person to fall instantly in love with the first creature he or she sees. Hmm. This seems to be symbolic of "love at first sight," don't you think? Go to "Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory" for more on this.
Act 3, Scene 2
LYSANDER Hang off, thou cat, thou burr! Vile thing, let loose, Or I will shake thee from me like a serpent.
HERMIA Why are you grown so rude? What change is this, Sweet love?
After Lysander has been drugged by Oberon's love juice, he falls instantly in love with Helena and violently out of love with Hermia. What's interesting is that, when characters fall out of love in this play, their love turns into hate rather than indifference. What's up with that?
Act 4, Scene 1
THESEUS Fair lovers, you are fortunately met. Of this discourse we more will hear anon.—
Egeus, I will overbear your will, For in the temple, by and by, with us, These couples shall eternally be knit.—
In A Midsummer Night's Dream, the seemingly natural course of love ends in marriage. (This is true of all Shakespearean comedies; head over to the "Genre" section for all the deets.) Here, Theseus's wedding day has finally arrived and the two sets of Athenian lovers have been paired up, despite Egeus's objections. Still, this seemingly happy ending leaves us a little nervous, if not skeptical. After all, the only reason Demetrius loves Helena is that he's under the spell of the magic love juice.
TITANIA My Oberon, what visions have I seen! Methought I was enamoured of an ass.
OBERON There lies your love.
TITANIA How came these things to pass? O, how mine eyes do loathe his visage now! (4.1.77-81)
When Titania awakens from the love spell, she has a classic "What was I thinking?" moment. Not only does she realize that she was literally in love with an "ass" (Shakespeare's little joke), she also admits that she can no longer stand the sight of the creature of which she was once "enamour'd." Some things never change.