Living in the Renaissance period in Europe, William Shakespeare’s works are inevitably colored with Humanism, which was prevalent during the time and emphasized men being the one controlling his own fate instead of religion or feudalism, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream is no exception. In Renaissance approximately back to 14th to 15th century, Humanism was a philosophy emerging due to the rise of middle class.
It proposed that “people of tremendous self-knowledge and wit” being “capable of self-expression and the practice of individual freedom.
1 Characters in A Midsummer Night’s Dream written by Shakespeare remarkably demonstrate these traits of Humanism people. The behaviors of and attitudes toward pursuing love of the three main lovers, Hermia, Lysander, and Helena, all embody the spirits of Renaissance Humanism. Take Hermia as the first example. Although being under the threat of her father that if she does not obey the command of marrying to Demetrius, she is to face the death penalty based on the law, she still insists on pursuing her love toward Lysander bravely, agreeing to elope with him.
By saying “Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind”2, Hermia undoubtedly shows the spirit of Humanism, being the one in charge of her own fate and following not the law but her heart. Lysander is the same in the situation. Although he knows that the road of pursuing happiness is tough, saying “The course of true love never did run smooth”3, still, he is determined to be together with his lover, offering the plan to run away from the restriction and start a new life.
Besides the first couple, Helena is also one of the characters with strong feature of sticking to one’s own will. Despite all the humiliation her beloved one, Demetrius, gives her, she still hangs on following him. Even though her love toward Demetrius makes her blind and foolish, marking that she is willing to be like a dog loyally following her lover, she still embodies the spirit of fearlessly pursuing her goal. However, Helena’s lover, Demetrius, seems to be the only one in the two couples who does not show the ideal of Humanism.
Although he insists on pursuing his love, Hermia, he on the contrary uses laws and discipline in the attempt to reach this goal. We can see throughout the play that he is the one like a puppet, being controlled by rules and other people. At the very beginning, he relies on Hermia’s father, hoping that the law and the authority can grant him his love. Then, on his way of seeking Hermia in the wood, his heart is even controlled by Puck and Oberon by applying the juice of flower to change his mind all in a sudden.
Even in the end, when all the magic on other people, including Titania and Lysander, are removed, he ends up being the one still with it and will live under the control of it forever, being unable to love the one he truly want to love. This might indicate that Shakespeare disapproves of the rules and authority, which corresponds to the spirit of Humanism, by putting the “bad” ending on the one who is for them, even though it seems to be an overall happy ending.
To conclude, even though the authority still plays a vital role in the play, for in the end it is still the authority that decides the fates of the two couples, the characters in the play still hold the spirit of Humanism in their ways of pursuing love. In the play, we can see that Shakespeare subtly celebrates Humanism when illustrating the personalities and the acts of the characters, making them stick to their own wills and determined to decide their own fates. As a result, we can say that Humanism is one of the crucial factors that influences and connects thread from beginning to end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.