To See or Not To See: Vision, Night and Day in A Midsummer Night’s Dream

July 31, 2022 by Essay Writer

A Midsummer Night’s Dream begins in the city that was, to the Renaissance imagination, the center of ancient Greek civilization. (Romanticized) Athens stands as a testament to what human beings know and are able to know. But throughout this play, Shakespeare delights in decentering the world mortals take for granted; soon the audience learns that the dark forest is the center of the play’s world, relegating Athens, center of the civilized Greek world, to the periphery. Day gives way to night, and mortal rulers leave the stage to be replaced by fairies. Night-and nighttime in, of all places, a forest-with its darkness and unseen horrors, seems a strange setting for a comedy. But in the world the play constructs, the special properties of night make it the perfect vehicle for the four lovers to set out on a project of self-discovery. Shakespeare plays on the same tensions as the trans-cultural phenomenon of the blind fortune teller: a belief that in darkness, reliance on senses other than eyesight leads to true seeing. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the nighttime forest, by disrupting and transforming vision, forces introspection and improvisation that help the four lovers on their way to self-understanding. The darkness of the night setting seems particularly important in a play (and a culture) where the language of love relies so heavily on sight imagery. Fairy magic literalizes the connection between love and sight: appropriately, Oberon’s love juice is applied to the eyes. In the language of the play, to look on or at someone is the most common metonymic expression for falling in love with a new person, or for spending time with the one you already love. Lysander steels himself and Hermia against the trial of separation with a call to “starve our sight / >From lover’s food till morrow deep midnight” (1.1, ll. 221-2). Vision and hunger together become the elements of Lysander’s metaphor about lovers and separation; to see is to be with, and a lover’s company is elevated in importance to the need for food and drink. But Hermia and Lysander are not going to see each other by the light of day. The scant light of midnight-midnight, when dawn and dusk are both equally far off-will provide all the necessary illumination for their “lovers’ food.” The darkness of night is only intensified by the forest location, and yet these lovers are expected in the course of the play to come to see each other more fully. “Setting eyes” on someone is also an expression for falling in love. Note Helena’s tortured complaint that “ere Demetrius looked on Hermia’s eyne / He hailed down oaths that he was only mine” (1.1., ll. 242-3). Vision as a key part of love plays itself out fully in this line: eye contact is vital, because looking at someone looking at you is perhaps the most basic physical confrontation of another person’s subjectivity (compare the experience of eye contact to the impossibility of hearing someone hear you, or smelling someone smell you). Demetrius looks into Hermia’s eyes and falls in love. At the end of the same monologue, Helena uses more sight imagery in her resolution to get Demetrius back: “But herein mean I to enrich my pain, / To have his sight thither and back again” (1.1 ll. 250-1). What has wandered must be made to come back, and so Demetrius’ gaze becomes shorthand for Demetrius’ love. Sight, eyes, looking-all are part of a vocabulary of love that would seem to require the light of day rather than a setting in the darkest of all places at the darkest of all hours. But if Lysander’s plan gives the first hint about the play’s setting (aside from the play’s title), Helena gives the first hint of a way to negotiate the tension between a nighttime setting and the visual language of love. Although the language of love makes extensive use of sight imagery, Helena asserts that real love has little to do with the eyes: “Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind, / And therefore is winged Cupid blind” (1.1 ll. 234-5). The gaze of the mind, therefore, gives love its true shape (although even in making this assertion Helena is forced to rely on sight imagery). What kind of gaze, then, is at work in the night world of the forest? Throughout the course of the night, the gaze becomes, at different times, introspective, non-visual, or enchanted, twisting the meaning of “love is blind.” By cutting away or transforming the sense humans rely on most, the night world forces new kinds of looking. Cupid’s blindness, described by Helena as a handicap, becomes a strength. Consider the passage in which Lysander describes the time when they will implement his plan: “Tomorrow night, when Phoebe doth behold / Her silver visage in the watr’y glass . . . ” (1.1 ll. 209-10). This short poetic description shows the potential ways that the normal mechanics of the gaze might be changed. Phoebe, or Diana, is the goddess of the moon and of transformation, particularly the unseen and mysterious transformations that happen under cover of darkness. The moon, the only source of light by which lovers can behold each other, is not shedding light on the activities of others but looks instead at her own reflection. The night world is therefore one that inverts the gaze from an out-looking action to an in-looking one, from a window to a mirror, from observation to introspection. The idea of a dream plays with the same transformation of vision: a dream is only visible when the eyes are closed, when vision is inward-looking. The characters themselves try to make sense of the night’s events through the framework of the dream: “Why then, we are awake. Let’s follow him, / And by the way let us recount our dreams” (4.1 l. 195). From the title of the play onward, the dream establishes itself as an important kind of vision. But dream does not just negotiate the tension between a language of love saturated by sight imagery and an incidental nighttime setting: dream and introspective vision are themselves made possible by night and darkness. The physical darkness impairs normal vision: the dark is intense enough for characters to fear being alone. Helena cries out to Demetrius not to abandon her “darkling,” or in the dark (2.2 l. 93). Hermia seems certain that her abandonment in the dark by Lysander could lead to her death: “Speak, of all loves. I swoon almost with fear. / No? Then I well perceive you are not nigh. / Either death or you I’ll find immediately” (2.2. ll. 160-2). The dark forest is far from hospitable to Hermia’s imagination, but Shakespeare’s night actually protects and instructs the lovers. Hermia’s line give a clue to how they must learn to cope without their eyes: she does not see that Lysander is not near, but rather “perceives”-her hearing is the sense on which she comes to depend. Hearing and sight operate quite differently: while sight can be controlling (consider Foucault’s panopticon, and the use of observation as power), listening requires openness. The temporal element of listening necessitates patience (Tu Wei-ming, 2/11/99). Hermia is able to find her lover eventually by using her hearing to its full potential: Dark night, that from the eye his function takes, The ear more quick of apprehension makes. Wherein it doth impair the seeing sense, It pays the hearing double recompense. Thou art not by mine eye, Lysander, found; Mine ear, I thank it, brought me to thy sound. (3.2 ll. 178-183) Here is the power of night to transform the gaze. The eye’s power is taken, but the ear’s is augmented. This Hermia seems far more confident than the Hermia of only a few scenes ago, who was certain she would perish without her lover. She speaks with a kind of triumph about her own ability to improvise: her ear paid “double recompense” has been more than adequate to the task. The night “pays,” rewards, gives gifts in place of what it takes away. Hermia, thrilled to see her lover and to discover her own ability to improvise, goes so far as to thank her own ear. Relying on different kinds of perception leads Hermia to Lysander, just as the night world brings all four lovers to a truer understanding of themselves and their loves, making possible a happy ending for everyone by the end of the play. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the nighttime forest, by disrupting and transforming vision, forces introspection and improvisation that help the four lovers on their way to self-understanding. A dream can be interpreted, and skills learned are not forgotten. The experience of the night will not fade with dawn. Oberon assures Puck that they are a special kind of fairy, whose magic does not evaporate with the coming of light (3.2, ll. 389-96). The act of interpretation also ensures a lasting relationship with their nighttime vision. In daylight, the four go on to recount their dreams together, struggling to make sense of the night (4.1 l. 195). Demetrius calls attention to the permeability of the barrier between night and day, and the ability of night visions to carry over into the daylight hours: “It seems to me / That yet we sleep, we dream” (4.1 ll. 189-91). In his speech to Egeus, Demetrius speaks with wonder about his new understanding. Daylight, rather than cause his love for Helena to vanish, has seemed to strengthen it. In reference to Helena, gone is the word “dote,” which connotes shallow feeling (Garber 10/13); the word “dote” is instead reserved for description of his former feelings about Hermia (4.1 ll. 163-73). His feelings for Hermia are the ones that have metaphorically been snuffed out by the dawn, “melted as the snow” before the sun (4.1 l. 163). What began in night as magic, as introspection and improvisation, has in daylight solidified into deep feeling. Although he speaks of Helena being “the object and pleasure” of his eye, the visual metaphor is accompanied by a proclamation of the faith and virtue of his heart’s devotion (4.1 ll. 166-7). Introspection allows keener observation; new ways of looking enrich more ordinary types of sight. Night teaches the four lovers how to see more clearly during the day.

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