The Forest and the Human Mind in Shakespeare

Sarah Nelson

William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream contains two separate worlds: courtly society and a forest realm. In the play, four lovers run to the forest amidst a complicated romantic situation. As these lovers, Hermia, Demetrius, Lysander and Helena, become entangled in shared emotions, their identities often become indistinguishable. In the forest, the characters are subject to the magical forces of the wood and its effects on their feelings for each other. While the Athenian courtly society in which they live is defined by rules and social roles, the forest has its own laws, to which the humans become subject. The forest in A Midsummer Night’s Dream represents the landscape of the human collective subconscious. Each character is a discreet part of this collective whole, in which their innermost desires and identities are often indistinguishable. The forest also seems to act as a dream world, which allows the subconscious to flow unrestricted. These psychological influences are fascinating as Shakespeare lived hundreds of years before the advent of psychology. I align myself with Martin Bergmann’s exploration of a collective imagination shared by the characters as well as Marjorie Garber’s theory of a forest “dream experience.” I bring elements of these ideas together by examining the possibility of a collective subconscious amongst the characters as well as the forest’s role as a device in releasing repressed ambitions and feelings.

The play opens with the characters in a structured, courtly society from which they are desperate to escape. This includes strict rules and social roles. One of the lovers, Hermia, is required by her father, Egeus, to marry Demetrius despite her love for Lysander. When Hermia appeals to the authority figure, Theseus, he says:

For you, fair Hermia, look you arm yourself

To fit your fancies to your father’s will

Or else the law of Athens yields you up…

To death, or to a vow of single life” (1.1.117-121).

He is reluctant to give Hermia the ultimatum of either obedience to her father’s wishes, death, or life in a convent, but he admits he is bound by the law to do so. In this world, the characters must follow the law and expectations associated with the gender roles presented by a patriarchal society.

Demetrius and Lysander are also placed into stereotypical roles, cast as jealous and competitive young men. Both men’s love for a woman is amplified when they realize they have competition. Demetrius seems more interested in his superiority to Lysander than his desire to have Hermia as his own. Even Lysander, who claims to be motivated only by his love for Hermia participates in this competition. Demetrius says, “Lysander, yield Thy crazéd title to my certain right” (1.1.91-2). This is the only time Demetrius speaks during Lysander’s argument with Hermia’s father over her hand in marriage. Demetrius’ few words portray his superior rights over Lysander. The two men battle over both love and status, demonstrating the constraints courtly society places upon them.

However, when Hermia and the other lovers escape to the forest, they are freed of these constraints. The forest is a fluid realm, where Athenian courtly rules are not upheld and humans are subject to fairy order. Here there is magic, and time and reality are easily manipulated. The forest’s ruler King Oberon asks his puck, Robin, to find a magical juice to induce love in those under its influence. Robin responds by saying, “I’ll put a girdle round bout the Earth in forty minutes” (2.1.175). He references his ability to bend time, as his magical abilities allow him to travel beyond the rules of physical abilities. In the forest, humans are easily manipulated by magic. The lovers’ feelings and desires change often and their relationships change quickly.

Similar to the effects of human desire, the forest is unpredictable, an environment of complicated emotions and urges. Released from societal standards, the characters express unbridled emotions. They experience love that is fickle and intense, bouncing between lovers. After Lysander is subjected to the love juice, he wakes up in love with Helena, declaring, “Content with Hermia? No. I do repent/ The tedious moments I with her have spent./ Not Hermia but Helena I love (2.2.117-9).” Before he had fallen asleep, Lysander was madly in love with Hermia. By the next morning he scorns her in favor of a new love. This is reminiscent of the conflicting desires of a human subconscious. For the characters of Midsummer, a tangled romantic history logically leads to indecisiveness. The “magic” used on the characters is representative of their own desires working out various feelings for one another. For example, Demetrius was engaged in a relationship with Helena before he devoted his time to Hermia. In society, he realizes he must choose one woman and decides on Hermia. However, in the forest his underlying feelings for Helena are revealed, and he realizes she is his true love. In this way the forest approximates a more accurate representation of human desire as people can have multiple conflicting passions. It is the rules of society that force people to choose only one person to love as a life partner.

The idea of a collective subconscious is also strongly represented in the way the characters share desires and traits, often becoming indistinguishable. Throughout the play, Hermia and Helena seem almost interchangeable; Helena even laments:

We, Hermia, like two artificial gods,

Have with our needles created both one flower,

Both on one sampler, sitting on one cushion,

Both warbling of one song, both in one key,

As if our hands, our sides, voices, and minds,

Had been incorporate (3.2.204-9).

 Helena and Hermia have grown up together, never leaving one another’s sides. They have become almost identical, participating in the same activities and even forging one mind. Helena’s suggestion that their minds “had been incorporate” alludes to the idea of a collective mentality. Additionally, the use of similes such as “our needles created both one flower” alludes to the two girls joining hearts and minds. In this way, they both have their own distinct styles and characteristics but ultimately contribute to one being. They are both motivated by their love for a man, share insecurities about their beauty, and act as objects of affection for both Lysander and Demetrius. Even their names begin with the same letter, underscoring their similarities. This allows for a connection to be created between Hermia and Helena before they are known to be close friends. The two women represent the complexities of the subconscious, diverging into different conflicting wants and needs while sharing a collective mentality.

The forest could be a dream world, acting as a stage for the human subconscious. This stage allows the characters’ repressed emotions and ambitions to mingle unrestrained. It works as a metaphorical landscape in which the inhabitants are liberated and even encouraged to explore the depths of their desires. According to this reading, the lovers fall asleep in the forest and, under the effects of the forest’s magic, have a joint dream in which they are subject to a “love juice.” In this dream, they fall in and out of love. Uninhibited by their conscious minds, their unconscious selves could work out their troubles. In this sense, the events in the forest occur within a shared dream.

Shakespeare’s use of the forest to release the characters’ emotions parallels psychologist Sigmund Freud’s theory that dreams reveal repressed desires. In his work, On Dreams, Freud says, “I am led to regard the dream as a sort of substitute for the thought-processes, full of meaning and emotion” (Freud 147). Freud believed that dreams had meaning and were an important part of the subconscious brain’s processes. He subscribed to a practice called psychoanalysis, which entails using a person’s dreams and stream of consciousness to uncover their true desires and problems. Three hundred years before Freud, Shakespeare stages a similar scene of complex desires and underlying emotions released by a fantasy world. However, in Shakespeare’s time, dreams were thought to be caused by supernatural elements, making his fairy forest realm an ideal location for working out matters of the subconscious.

Another strong clue to a subconscious collective dream world are the characters of Oberon and Titania and Theseus and Hippolyta. The former couple rules the forest while the latter holds power in society. They display many similarities and Oberon and Titania explicitly express an infatuation with the other couple. After Titania criticizes Oberon for his obsession with Hippolyta, he responds, “How canst thou thus for shame, Titania,/ Glance at my credit with Hippolyta,/ Knowing I know thy love to Theseus?” (2.1.74-6). Titania and Oberon’s love for each other’s courtly counterpart suggests that they may be alternate versions of Theseus and Hippolyta. Additionally, Titania and Hippolyta never appear at the same time in the play, and the same applies to Oberon and Theseus. In Athenian society, Theseus is restricted by duty to force Hermia into following her father’s requirements for her marriage. He expresses a reluctance to force her into a loveless marriage, but he explains that “the law of Athens” binds him (1.1.119).  Meanwhile, his forest counterpart Oberon is concerned with the lover’s fates and wants to help them work out their desires and wishes. This similar perspective could represent Theseus’ subconscious desire to help the lovers, something he could not do under societal constraints. Although this correlation exists, the workings of the forest are more complicated than direct correlations of one action to one person or connections between society and the woods. The forest mimics the complicated nature of the subconscious. It is hard to attribute the world to one person, suggesting the presence of a collective subconscious. This collective facilitates the expression of inner thoughts. By allowing characters’ desires to interact, Shakespeare shows how a single mind can have complicated emotions towards others. Many people experience love with multiple people at one time, and they must choose between a socially condoned relationship and their conflicting desires. Although Shakespeare’s play is a dramatized version of this natural process, it exposes the indecisiveness of the human mind.

In  Unconscious in Shakespeare, Martin Bergmann discusses the role of the unconscious in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He cites a soliloquy from the play in which Theseus describes madmen, lovers, and poets as having similar “seething brains” (5.1.4). Bergmann says this line emphasizes “the unconscious that they have in common” (42). Theseus goes on to say that these characters “are of imagination all compact” (5.1.8). Bergmann interprets this to mean that the characters have excessive imaginations, more so than a sane person. He also says that during the time of Shakespeare’s writing, lunacy and dreaming were often associated. This is important to the play, as the dreaming lovers are often depicted as frantic and indecisive, qualities of the classic image of a ‘lunatic.’ Bergmann supports my theory that the play involves a shared unconscious of many of the characters and that Shakespeare emphasizes the similarities between characters, portraying them as a single mind. However, I focus more on the forest’s role in the unconscious. While Bergmann brings up Theseus’ words, I have focused on Oberon as a portrayal of Theseus’ subconscious. The forest is a representation of the workings of the human subconscious.

Marjorie Garber describes her own theories on the role of dreaming in Midsummer in Dream in Shakespeare: from Metaphor to Metamorphosis. Her proposals are convincing, as she describes “the great dream of the forest experience and the smaller dreams within it” (56). Garber speaks of the subtlety of the division between dream and reality. Often the reader or audience wonders whether a certain part, or perhaps the whole piece is a dream. This intermingling of dream and reality mirrors the intricacies of the subconscious and conscious. The mind is a complicated place, and often one must question whether they are dreaming. Shakespeare’s play stages this confusion.

The events of the forest and manipulation of its inhabitants closely mimic the intricacies of the human mind. Throughout my paper, I have proposed a theory that the forest in the play A Midsummer Night’s Dream represents a manifestation of the subconscious of the characters portrayed. The arguments included by Bergmann and Garber support my reading of a collective mind and show the importance of subconscious in Shakespeare’s work. Shakespeare’s incorporation of these advanced concepts of the human mind are significant because he lived hundreds of years before psychology gained respect as a science. His analysis of the subconscious was advanced for his time. Investigating the idea of the forest as a device which unlocks the human subconscious is central to understanding the methods and motives of Shakespeare’s work.

Works Cited

Bergmann, Martin S. Unconscious in Shakespeare’s Plays. London, GBR: Karnac Books, 2013. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 13 April 2015.

Freud, Sigmund. “On Dreams.” The Freud Reader. Ed. Peter Gay. New York: W.W. Norton, 1989. 147. Print.

Garber, Marjorie B. Dream in Shakespeare: from Metaphor to Metamorphosis. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974. Print.

Shakespeare, William. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Ed. Wolfgang Clemen. New York: Signet Classics, 1998. Print.

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