What is Love?

Please tell me you sung my title. Because if you didn’t I’m extremely disappointed. However, no, this won’t actually be a post about love. This is an English Major blog, and therefore it’s going to be more focused on A Midsummer Night’s Dream because I’ve been reflecting quite a bit on that play, and even more so on one of the central themes: what is the nature of love?

For any who haven’t seen/read the play, I’ll cue you in to the basic plot. But hey, there will be spoilers. So we start with Theseus who’s getting married. Like any Shakespeare play there are going to be a lot of characters, so hold onto your hats. Theseus, ruler of Athens, is helping Egeus settle a conflict with his daughter. Egeus wants his daughter, Hermia, to marry Demetrius, but Hermia wants to marry Lysander instead. Even worse, Demetrius has already courted another girl named Helena, who is madly in love with him in spite of him not returning her affections anymore. Hermia is told she can marry Demetrius, die, or be a nun. Her choice. She and Lysander plan to run away that night, telling Helena of their plan, who in turn tells Demetrius hoping he’ll love her. Lysander and Hermia flee pursued by Demetrius who is pursued by Hermia. In the meantime, players try to create a play for Theseus’ wedding based on the Greek tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe. The lead actor Bottom is ridiculous (he comes into play later). In the meantime, the fairy king and queen (Oberon and Titania) are fighting. To get revenge Oberon anoints her eyes with a love potion and she falls for the actor Bottom who is mischievously transformed to have the head of a donkey, thus making him all the more repulsive. Seeing Helena’s plight, Oberon also instructs his servant to anoint Demetrius’ eyes to fall for Helen, but the servant instead anoints Lysander’s. At one point both men are spelled in love with Helena rather than Hermia. The couples end up fighting wildly and finally all is set right again. They marry, Bottom is transformed back and performs his terrible play. Happy endings all around.

But not quite. I suppose what troubled me most in my reading of this play was questioning what love really means, particularly in the context of Helena and Demetrius. And perhaps Shakespeare intended his audience to question such. Lysander tries to make love sound rational, and yet others describe Cupid as being blind, and Titania’s love at first sight for the hideous donkey-man is appalling.

However, it is in Helena and Demetrius that we perhaps most question the idea of love. While Lysander and Hermia are happy, Titania and Oberon reconcile their lover’s quarrels, and Theseus and Hippolyta seem to marry quite contentedly, Demetrius only does so under the effects of a spell in the same way that Titania fell for the awful and hideous Bottom.

Someone in my class today asked if we’re supposed to feel sorry for Demetrius. And I would answer yes. But perhaps that’s personal experience coming into the mix. I had a friend (who shall remain anonymous but nonetheless agreed to let me post this) who recently was in a bad relationship. Looking back she realized that she’d been emotionally abused, and that it hadn’t been healthy overall. And she still continues to struggle with that. When she attempted to leave the relationship she was threatened, though not in the means you might think. Rather she was told she was responsible for a potential suicide in the making and that was a shocking and horrifying thing for her. And yet there continued to be this idea of “love” that the relationship she’d been in was beautiful and close, in spite of how much damage it had done. Having to try to drop all contact and later finding herself stalked was scary. Talking with her I was reminded of Helena’s obsessive pursuit of Demetrius. Though he once claimed to love her, he’s moved on. And yet she can’t seem to take no for an answer, even when he seems to be positively vile to her. He threatens what we could take as rape, threatens to leave her in the wilds to death. And yet she still follows him acting as moonstruck as can be.

Is either of their behaviors love? Demetrius must be spelled to love her. And Helena refuses to leave no matter how much Demetrius pushes her away. Is it love to not give someone space? To threaten either to gain freedom or to keep a relationship going? To not respect someone’s wishes to be left alone? Helena verges on stalker status, Demetrius on vile spousal abuser. And I look at my friend who’s being stalked in the name of love and think, this isn’t love. This isn’t right.

I come from a Christian background, and you can think what you want about that, but it always brings me back to what 1st Corinthians says about love: Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Before anyone gets onto me about being preachy, I’ll quickly say I have no quarrels with anyone having their own beliefs. But I suppose I’m just highlighting these are mine. And I want love to be something beautiful and freeing rather than the unnatural feeling of obsession.

I think in the end Shakespeare is just creating the real fact, that love is a mystery. He who married a woman far older than him, perhaps he questioned why that was, what had happened. Did he feel like Demetrius trapped because of his initial pursuit of her, a possible pregnancy in the making? Did he fall irrationally like Titania for bottom? Or did he come to love her gradually and reasonably like Lysander? It is hard to say. But these various contrasting couples, all concluded as Thisbe and Pyramus murder each other in the name of love, continues to call to question this strange force we claim to know so much about.

All I know is this, I will never consider the disgusting way Helena pursues an abusive man like Demetrius to be love. Stalking and refusing to leave someone alone is not love. Threatening someone is not love. Killing oneself over someone else, is not love. What is love? I can’t tell you. But I definitely know that as I read Shakespeare I have a very good idea of what it’s not.

Helena:

And even for that do I love you the more.
I am your spaniel. And, Demetrius,
The more you beat me, I will fawn on you.
Use me but as your spaniel—spurn me, strike me,
Neglect me, lose me. Only give me leave,
Unworthy as I am, to follow you.
What worser place can I beg in your love—
And yet a place of high respect with me—
Than to be usèd as you use your dog?

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