A Midsummer Night's Mirror

I’ll say it, and I don’t give a hoot who hears me: A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the most delightful Shakespeare play. There it is. You heard it here first, from an eighteen-year old who, before this year, had only read Romeo and Juliet and Julius Caesar for school.

I can respect the language in any Shakespeare play. The man was a marvelous connoisseur of the English language. However, I’ve never been so immersed in one of his works before. This play threw me onto a rollercoaster ride. I knew I loved this play when I was in public, having my dinner and studying, and I came across the argument catastrophe in the forest between the four lovers.

“Get you gone, you dwarf!” says Lysander, and I gasp out loud and look around at all the other people enjoying their sushi, wondering if anyone understands just how infuriating this young man is. No one understood my horror. But I finally understood the power of William Shakespeare. I was transported to the audience of the 16th century, gasping and laughing and crying with and for these characters. The man was a genius! And this certain play is just. Hilarious. Where else can you find an elegant, beautiful fairy queen admit to her king, “Methought I was enamored of an ass” (4.1.76)? Where else can you fall in love with a delightfully imbecilic overachiever who wants so desperately to be a lion (and every other part in the play) that he cries, “I will aggravate my voice so that I will roar you as gently as any sucking dove” (1.2.74-75)? I’ll wait.

But there was one problem in this delightful little comedy. One little bruise on this peach that left a sad taste in my mouth. Her name was Helena.

Shakespeare threw a curve ball into his comedy. Bottom the Weaver was a character with a similar purpose to Helena—he was a relatable goofball. The audience could laugh at Bottom and themselves simultaneously, and leave the theater more humble than they came.

However, it’s difficult to laugh at Helena. She alone is the character to inspire tears in the audience during this masterpiece. The young lady is strong and beautiful. Her love for Demetrius is entirely unspoiled throughout the whole of the play.

“It is not night when I do see your face,
Therefore I think I am not in the night;
Nor doth this wood lack worlds of company,
For you, in my respect, are all the world.
Then how can it be said I am alone
When all the world is here to look on me?” (2.1.220-226)

Isn’t it beautiful? The girl is smitten and true to the sentiment, to her love, during five acts of turbulence.

But Helena’s hope is quickly draining as the plot furthers, because this unfailing love of hers is also unrequited. Demetrius is a cruel young man focused on a woman that does not care for him. To Helena he is heartless.

“Do I entice you? Do I speak you fair?
Or rather do I not in plainest truth
Tell you I do not nor I cannot love you?” (2.1.199-201)

Perhaps the unrequited love from your youth wasn’t quite as wounding, but we can all recognize and sympathize with the fall of Helena’s heart here. She’s an incredibly relatable character, but she’s a rather tragic character to relate to. We begin to believe ourselves just as “ugly as a bear” (2.2.100) as our beloved Helena while she wanders muddy and forgotten through the forest.

But then, Oberon. Here is where Shakespeare shows his Christian side. This is the redeeming character for our tragic Helena.

While Helena is being torn apart by Demetrius’ sharp words, the fairy king is watching. He sees the entire exchange, and by the time Demetrius deserts her, Oberon shows a very tender affection for the girl. He goes so far as to make her a promise.

“Fare thee well, nymph. Ere he do leave this grove
Thou shalt fly him, and he shall seek thy love.” (2.1.245-246)

This fairy king values the underdog of this story. More than that, he can recognize the unfailing love Helena has for this young man, and Oberon wishes to encourage it, this human characteristic that will be the same thing to inspire Puck to declare, “Lord, what fools these mortals be!” (3.2.115). Please, reader, don’t miss this. Oberon calls this pathetic, heartsick girl “nymph.” Nymphs were often the victims of satyrs in old Greek mythology. They were the enticing presences that often fled from eager lustful creatures. Then, the promise. It’s clear as a bell: the language of Oberon’s line gives us a hint that Helena has reason to hope. The fairy king is flipping the script for her.

Though she believes she’s alone, Oberon sees her. Though she believes her case is hopeless, Oberon makes her a promise. Then he begins working behind the scenes for her, to make his promise come true. Sound familiar? Our very own El Roi is depicted through Shakespeare’s fairy king. And He is depicted on behalf of the most tragic, least confident of the four lovers. He is depicted for those of us who see Helena more like a mirror than a character on a page or a stage.

Now, let’s skip the terrible muck and mix-up that happened right after Oberon orders Puck to find “A sweet Athenian lady…in love with a disdainful youth” (2.2.260-261). However, don’t forget that it happened.

Let’s pick back up at our happy ending, our strange, inexplicable happy ending. This is another incredible Christian Easter egg. By Oberon’s magic, Helena has her Demetrius. The “disdainful youth” from Act II is the only one that leaves the forest enchanted. The audience has a bit of a hitch in their hearts. Why does Helena need magic for her true love to see the value she has? Yet all is set right by Oberon’s spell. We can hardly say that we would prefer Demetrius walk in freedom of mind and continue breaking Helena’s poor heart.

Sound familiar? Have you ever seen a heart change by the power of Christ? Does it not happen as if by magic? Does it not seem like a dream dreamt by multiple people at once? Yet the man is made right, transformed into a new creation. Therefore, like Helena, we are tempted to call this changed brother or sister, “Mine own, and not mine own” (4.1.191). Helena didn’t do a thing to change Demetrius herself. Neither did Demetrius! It was a third party, a backstage deity that saw and cared for our underdog, Helena.

Helena is a Christian’s hope in a world with a higher power.

The Tragedy of Plot Twist: The King of Denmark

Shakespeare’s Hamlet is quite obviously a tragedy, and as such, there must be a tragic hero. Tragedies have always been an important part of Western storytelling, and tragic heroes span the literary distance from Achilles to Anakin Skywalker. The tragedy was considered the highest art form in Ancient Greece, and the tragic hero was a riveting character that the audience could sympathize with and aspire to, but who was also doomed to fall. Aristotle identified six main characteristics of a tragic hero: hubris, an excessive pride and disrespect for the natural order; nemesis, a punishment or fate the tragic hero can’t avoid; hamartia, a flaw that causes the hero’s downfall; peripeteia, a reversal of fate; anagnorisis, the moment in time when the hero makes an important discovery in the story; and catharsis, the compassion or pity the audience feels toward the hero. While it is commonly assumed that Hamlet is the tragic hero of Hamlet, he does not possess all of these characteristics. However, Claudius, the antagonist of the story, does. He is what one could call virtuous, but not eminently good - he possesses admirable traits, and was evidently honourable enough that he managed to be voted monarch instead of Hamlet. However, he has a fatal flaw - deceitfulness - and this, his hubris, and his inescapable death by Hamlet’s hand point to his being the tragic hero of Hamlet.

Claudius consistently shows disrespect for the natural order throughout the entire play. He first kills the old Hamlet, who was not only his king, but also his brother. He put his personal ambitions over the sacred bond of family, and the political bond of king and citizen. He then married his sister-in-law, Gertrude, scarcely two months after his brother’s death. He also usurped the throne, which ought to have gone to Hamlet, as he was fully capable of ruling Denmark and was the previous king’s son. He was willing to sacrifice the very stability of his country for to fulfill his own desires, and he paid no heed to his country’s tradition, his due loyalties, or the proper behavior expected of him. His pride - his hubris, to use Aristotle’s definition - is evident in these actions.

Throughout the play Claudius is shown being more and more deceitful and treacherous. What started as a simple murder - not premeditated, as far as we know - turns into intricate schemes, manipulations, and vicariously attempting murder through various members of the court. The fact that he murdered his brother and married his sister-in-law is enough to condemn him, but he did not stop there. In order to secure his position, he used Ophelia to spy on Hamlet, effectively destroying their relationship, and,  in the long run, contributing to her eventual death. He also ensures the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, whom he was using to try to kill Hamlet. He constantly deceives, manipulates, and uses everyone around him like simple tools, without conscience, to benefit himself.

By the third act Claudius is aware that Hamlet knows he murdered the king, and tries to take steps to prevent Hamlet killing him. He has a perfect plot to ensure Hamlet’s death, but he manages to foil it and return to Denmark to kill him. Claudius again tries to escape his death by conspiring with Laertes to kill Hamlet through fowl play - and once again, by mere chance, Hamlet escapes death and finally kills Claudius. Claudius has no control over his own fate, and he cannot stop his ultimate demise.

Claudius also fulfills the other three characteristics of a tragic hero. His fate is reversed when Hamlet slips out of his clever scheme and returns to Denmark with a new-found confidence in providence. He makes an important discovery - or perhaps, he discovers that his suspicions were correct - when the play Hamlet set up to guilt-trip him confirms Hamlet’s knowledge of his ill deed. In Act III, his despair and inability to fully repent of his crime and his sin shows us his broken humanity in a way that is deeply tragic. He is not a monster; he is a fallen man, just as we are.

Hamlet cannot be the tragic hero, even though his story is deeply tragic, because he lacks a fatal flaw and even has an off-screen redemption arc that allows him to finally put his indecision aside and fulfill his destiny. He starts off in the lowest place he could be - mourning his father alone, unable to trust his mother, whom he feel has betrayed him and his father. He knows that something is deeply wrong in Denmark, and knows that it is his duty and his destiny to remedy it. His indecision does create conflict in the play, but he moves past his “To be or not to be” speech of Act III to a complete trust in God and a tranquility that is astonishing. “There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow”, he says in Act V just before his fight with Laertes. In fact, Hamlet’s role in the story is similar to Macduff’s role in Macbeth. He had to right the wrong done by Claudius and restore order to the kingdom of Denmark.

Hamlet is a uniquely Christian tragedy because of this. Hamlet dies, but only after he redeems himself and fulfills his destiny. The villain is defeated at the end of the day, and Denmark itself is saved. There is murder and betrayal and death, but in the end order is restored.

Hamlet: Changed in Providence

From the moment we first meet Hamlet until he leaves for England, he is trapped between will and action. But when he returns to Denmark in Act V he is a changed man: still serious, yet far less melancholy and far more at peace. Even his letter to Horatio in the end of Act IV reveals a different Hamlet from the one we met in the beginning of the play. How is this? What changed him?

All Hamlet does in the first four acts is mope around pondering what he should do: should he kill Claudius, was his father’s ghost really a demon, or should he live or escape all the pain in the endless sleep that is death? When ever he actually does do something, it does not go as planned.

After his encounter with his father’s ghost, Hamlet is certain it is his duty to execute the culprit behind his father’s death, Claudius. But still Hamlet can’t shake the feeling that he might be wrong about the ghost. What if the ghost wasn’t his father, but really a demon? This question haunts him, and so, he comes up with a plan to see If his uncle truly is a murderer: a play depicting the events of his father’s death as told to him by the spirit. The play is a success - Claudius flees the scene. He knows he’s been found out. Hamlet follows him back to his chambers, where he is praying, and is ready to strike him down before thinks to himself

“Now he is a-praying. And now I’ll do ’t. And so he goes to heaven. And so am I revenged.—That would be scanned. A villain kills my father, and, for that, I, his sole son, do this same villain send To heaven. Oh, this is hire and salary, not revenge.” (3.3.77-83)

Hamlet’s soul remains conflicted. Boiling with hatred, Hamlet rushes to his mother’s room to confront her. Polonius is there too and hides behind a curtain as to eavesdrop on what the “troubled child” will say. In a fit of rage, Hamlet accuses his mother and threatens her, frightening her so that she cries for help. Hearing this, Polonius does the same, and Hamlet, thinking it is his uncle behind the curtain, recklessly thrusts his sword into Polonius, killing him. When Claudius is told what happened, his is outraged, and even more so when Hamlet hides the body and refuses to tell where it is hidden. Claudius then sends Hamlet off with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to England with the intent of Hamlet never returning. Hamlet has just about given up when just before they set sail, Hamlet is consulted by a Fortinbras captain. The captain tells Hamlet that they are on their way to invade a small portion of Poland worth almost nothing. Hamlet knows that this small disagreement will lead to more trouble than it’s worth. Hamlet now knows he’s wasted enough time and must act on his revenge.

“How all occasions do inform against me, And spur my dull revenge! What is a man If his chief good and market of his time Be but to sleep and feed? A beast, no more.” (4.4.31-34)

Hamlet knows he has the will and ability to do what he must, but whether it be sheer cowardice or from thinking to much, he won’t allow it to stop him any longer.

Hamlet is determined to confront his uncle when he returns from England but is strangely attacked by pirates. In this scuffle, he discovers two things: one, a letter from his uncle detailing Hamlet’s murder (the perfect piece of evidence to convict his uncle), and two, he is no longer on his ship and surrounded by pirates. But by the grace of God, they treat him quite well, in return for a favor to which Hamlet agrees. It is in his letter to Horatio that there seems to be something cheerier about Hamlet. We see this more when he and Horatio meet the grave digger as they almost flippantly discuss a very grave matter.

Hamlet: Whose grave’s this, sirrah?
Gravedigger: mine, sir. [sings]
Hamlet: I think it be thine indeed, for thou liest in ‘t.
Gravedigger: You lie out on ‘t, sir, and therefore ‘tis not yours. For my part, I do not lie in ‘t, yet it is mine.

They banter on until Hamlet discovers the identity of the owner of the grave - his beloved Ophelia. The death of her father has driven her mad to the point that she had drowned herself. Hamlet is heart-broken, realizing he had caused this with his uncertainty and burst of foolish rage. Laertes is infuriated that Hamlet would dare show his face at Ophelia’s funeral after what he did to her, telling her he never loved her, that she should be sent to a nunnery, and killing her father. Laertes charges Hamlet rightfully accusing him for the lost of Ophelia. When separated, Hamlet tell them he he intended not for this but that he truly loved her.

“I loved Ophelia. Forty thousand brothers Could not with all their quantity of love Make up my sum. What wilt thou do for her?” (5.1.285-286)

Hamlet never meant to hurt Ophelia and must face the consequences of his thoughtless actions. He and Horatio move on to discuss the events that took place whilst he was away and how he managed to survive.

Hamlet almost didn’t believe it himself when it happened. In the middle of a pirate attack he stumbled upon the letters to the King of England containing instructions from his uncle to have Hamlet killed. Hamlet took the original letter and quickly wrote a new letter to the king ordering that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern be killed, and sealed it with his father’s signet that he just so happened to have in his purse. During the orchestra of yelling, cannon and gun fire, Hamlet boarded the enemy vessel only to then realize that his ship had escaped the mess and left him to the pirates. The pirates realized who they had just captured decided rather to ask for a favor and return him home on the account of his current family situation. Hamlet realizes none of what had just happened was by chance. (“There’s a divinity that shapes our ends,” 5.2.11) Hamlet knows that if it is God’s will for him to enact revenge upon Claudius then it will happen. If Hamlet is to die today, he will; and if not, then he will die some other time.

“There is a special Providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ‘tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all. Since no man of aught he leaves knows, what is ‘t to leave betimes? Let be.” (5.2.233-238)

Hamlet tells Horatio this just before he faces Laertes in a duel - a duel that is Claudius’s final attempt to kill Hamlet. Hamlet has come to grips with providence and lets go of the reigns, knowing that God is in control. With in a hundred lines, everyone is dead; Claudius, Gertrude, Hamlet, Laertes. Horatio is the only one left. Horns blare as Fortinbras arrives, expecting to take back what is rightfully his by force, only to be told by Horatio of the tragic and heroic scene has just taken place. Fortinbras is astounded by the events, but orders that Hamlet be given an honourable burial.

“Let four captains bear Hamlet like a soldier to the stage, for he was likely, had he been put on, to have proven most royal; and for his passage, the soldier’s music and the rite of war speak loudly for him.” (5.2.441-446)

Fortinbras knew Hamlet has overcome a battle not many men face and yet managed to come out victorious, having restored justice and peace to Denmark. Hamlet succeeds in avenging his father, and also pays the price for killing Polonius. In the end all, was made right.