Dennis Maust | Essays | Midsummer
Shakespeare’s Midsummer Walls
Sometimes walls are more than bricks and mortar – and chinks.
Walls – to what ends? Several may combine for support, as with dwellings. Others may mark off or delineate, as between rooms, properties, or countries (think Berlin wall and U.S.-Mexico border fence). Some protect, as with dams or army forts. Still more enhance, as with Wrigley Field’s ivy covered outfield wall or decorative New Mexico freeway barriers. Their commonality: separation.
Walls may fail, be felled, or be circumvented. Then dwellings collapse, dams burst, or forts get overrun. But also rivers may return to natural courses, salmon may again swim upstream, countries may reunite or at least become more cordial.
Literature, too, is replete with walls. With little effort we reimagine Rapunzel’s Tower and Juliet’s Wall in Verona. A much older tower, for many, symbolizes overzealous, prideful humankind: “‘Come let us make bricks and burn them hard.’ – Brick served them as stone, and bitumen served them as mortar. – And they said, ‘Come, let us build us a city, and a tower, …’” (Gen. 11:3-4). We intone the Tower of Babel: wall imagery functioning as metaphorical device.
What then of “Wall” presented by Snout in A Midsummer Night’s Dream?
This man, with lime and rough-cast, doth present
Wall, that vile Wall which did these lovers sunder;
And through Wall’s chink, poor souls, they are content
To whisper. At the which let no man wonder. (Prologue, V.1.132-135)
This physical wall of cement and limestone separates two young, mythical lovers. We see it emerge at a wedding party near the end of Shakespeare’s comedy of young, love-obsessed (some would say crazed) and love-crossed Athenian lovers whose dreamlike night in the woods has ended, their weak-mindedness playfully resolved. “Remedied” is the bard’s term; it conjures up love as a type of sickness. Now, during the Duke’s nuptial celebrations, Shakespeare treats us to a humorous, embodied wall in a play taking place within his larger play.
To what end this particular physical wall? And what of its chink that aids separated lovers’ plans? “Wall” may serve double duty. First, it delightfully and unambiguously offers an uproariously good time as comedic device. With a little reflection, however, we may discover a second purpose. Shakespeare’s opening clue actually starts us thinking: he notably sets Midsummer in ancient Athens. Might he be hinting at some classical, lost wisdom for his contemporary, English renaissance audience – and us?
We first hear of “Wall” in the woods where Peter Quince, rehearsing his troupe, advises that to properly present their play for the Duke a wall is needed, “for Pyramus and Thisby, says the story, did talk through the chink of a wall” (III.1.63). The chink affords the sundered lovers an “opening” to plan their rendezvous. In true “I Love Lucy” fashion at one performance, it even offers them a comically sweet “taste” of romance. For these two lovers, the chink may also be credited with metaphorically felling their wall and hastening their tragicomic demise.
Visually, “Wall” physically separates Pyramus and Thisby. Importantly, it creates a bitter barrier to love’s fulfillment which elevates and enhances their desire. Shakespeare repeatedly brings into focus this interweaving of lovers, separation, and desire through the bodily presence of “Wall”:
And thou, O wall, O sweet, O lovely wall,
Thou stand’st between her father’s ground and mine;
Thou wall, O wall, O sweet and lovely wall,
Show me thy chink, to blink through with mine eyne. (Pyramus, V. 1.174-77)
O wicked wall, through whom I see no bliss!
Cursed be thy stones for thus deceiving me! (Pyramus, V.1.180-181)
O wall, full often hast thou heard my moans,
For parting my fair Pyramus and me!
My cherry lips have often kiss’d thy stones,
Thy stones with lime and hair knit up in thee. (Thisby, V.1.188-191)
Shakespeare makes Snout’s “Wall” integral to the unbridled love and desire between Pyramus and Thisby. This “wicked wall” erects a physical separation that keeps lover from beloved. Squarely before our eyes, “Wall” becomes the ultimate occurrence of familiar Midsummer circumstances: lovers doing crazy things when love is thwarted. Poetic image has become literary metaphor. “Wall” personifies a crucial aspect of a particular type of love on display in Midsummer. The actions of Pyramus and Thisby to overcome “Wall” echo the pre-nuptial, sometimes bewitched, antics of Lysander, Demetrius, Hermia, and Helena to realize their obstructed loves.
What type of “love” drives lovers to crazy, desperate, lovesick behavior? Ancient Greece offers the answer, no doubt why Shakespeare placed his mortals and English fairies in Athens. English speaking cultures talk generally of “love” no matter its form: romantic, sexual, familial, virtuous, playful, selfless, narcissistic, divine. Greek (and subsequently Latin) gives each variety of love a single word. To be fair, English may differentiate varieties of love through wordy context. Polytheistic Greece may well have viewed love, with its individual personalities, as it did its gods – each word, each type being important and explanatory to a well-lived life.
Shakespeare offers another clue if we recall a little mythology. Both Helena and Oberon talk of Cupid. Who is Cupid but the Roman equivalent of the Greek god, Eros, god of desire? Such a hint points to the particular word for Midsummer’s thematic love. Knowledge of Eros informs this type of love’s unreasoned and out-of-control desire. Snout’s personified “Wall” ultimately points to necessary lovers’ separation. Separation critically factors into a philosophical reflection upon a love that no longer remains generalized: Greek eros (ἔρος).
Anne Carson’s inspirational work, Eros the Bittersweet, helps connect Shakespeare’s lovers with their walls – embodied or otherwise. But before making use of Carson’s work on eros, the non-physical barriers to love in Midsummer require some light. The wall preventing the actualized love of Pyramus and Thisby seems to have a family history. Pyramus’s talk of the wall that stands “between her father’s ground and mine” echoes the earlier parental obstruction of Hermia’s father, who puts up a figurative wall by demanding she marry Demetrius. Lysander’s guardian aunt provides its figurative chink, through which Lysander schemes. He and Hermia will be safe in his aunt’s home, far away from Athens’ patriarchal laws. The two young lovers will meet in the woods (much like Pyramus and Thisby plan to meet at Ninus’s tomb) and run away to marry, happily removed from parental meddling.
Shakespeare erects a more subtle and complex figurative wall that separates Helena, shunned lover, from her beloved Demetrius, who having previously favored her now dotes on Hermia. We get a sense of this wall’s bricks and mortar in an early exchange:
HELENA: Were the world mine, Demetrius being bated,
The rest I’d give to you to be translated.
O, teach me how you look, and with what art
You sway the motion of Demetrius’ heart.
HERMIA: I frown upon him, yet he loves me still.
HELENA: Oh, that your frowns would teach my smiles such skill!
HERMIA: I give him curses, yet he gives me love.
HELENA: Oh, that my prayers could such affection move!
HERMIA: The more I hate, the more he follows me.
HELENA: The more I love, the more he hateth me. (I.1.190-199)
Curiously in this exchange, we can see why the wall separating Helena from her Demetrius mirrors the wall separating Demetrius from his Hermia. Beloveds’ rejections inflame lovers’ passions. This revealing talk also helps Helena to see (Wall’s metaphorical chink again) a way to get closer to Demetrius. She will divulge to him the planned escape of Lysander and Hermia. Her strategy may at least temporarily obliterate the physical distance separating her from Demetrius. He may even be grateful. His heartless wall may fall, if only for a short while.
Into the woods goes Demetrius, seeking Lysander and his love. Helena trails him like a puppy and soon clarifies to him his effect on her:
You draw me, you hard-hearted adamant;
But yet you draw not iron, for my heart is true as steel:
Leave you your power to draw,
And I shall have no power to follow you. (Helena, II.1.195-198)
Helena speaks of the power of Demetrius to attract her like a magnet. But he is not a magnet; he is a wall. Rather, he puts up a wall with magnetic power, powered by eros. The image of an “adamant” depicts something or someone unyieldingly hard and inflexible, like diamond. Helena’s plea only increases Demetrius’s rigid, impenetrable, uncompromising rejection. The power of eros, in response, increases her love for him. Rational observers, especially those versed in eros, recognize this dance.
A wall, figurative or literal, that distances lover from beloved is essential to eros. Carson explains. Separation is the necessary third element in the triangle of eros: lover, beloved, and lack or emotional distance. The sweet feeling of eros (desire) overpowers; it possesses lovers because with eros, distance paradoxically both separates and connects. When they cannot touch, lovers are “electrified by desire” (16).
Shakespeare has great fun with the maddening effects of eros. Modern romance novels, Disney fairytales, ubiquitous Broadway and Hollywood romantic comedies try to imitate. We sometimes refer to eros as falling for someone or falling in love. Society programs us to think it the ultimate expression of love between two people, an ideal and goal rather than a transitory state. Truly, it might better be avoided.
Carson expands: bitterness too results from love’s lack, from the tension of unfulfilled desire, unrequited love, the absence of fusion with one’s beloved. With eros, bitter intercepts sweet. The combined emotions of bitterness at the distance separating lover from beloved, in actuality, and the sweetness of desire lover feels for beloved, in potentiality, is why Carson coopts Sappho’s description of eros as bittersweet. (3-9, 75)
Shakespeare’s sundry walls create the separation that causes love’s lack. Eros then infects and blinds its victims to reason. Love’s sweet desire, be it natural or magical, combined with the tension and bitterness of separation manifests as lovesickness. Eros does not care. Eros is ambivalent. Greeks viewed this crazy, maddening love as a state of mind that resulted in losing control; they did not encourage eros.
When walls fall and distance evaporates, eros is remedied. Absent walls, separation, and lack, the triangle that is eros no longer exists. However, the dissolution of eros, even its nonexistence, does not preclude other forms of love. Shakespeare comedically remedies the midsummer night’s occurrences of eros. Demetrius then (maturely) explains for the Duke, to the discontent of Hermia’s father, how all came to be in the woods and that his childish love for Hermia has melted. He once again loves Helena with all his being. Demetrius’s figurative wall between them gone, Helena’s (natural) eros is also remedied. Finally the Duke, with good reason, demolishes the paternal wall separating mutual lovers Hermia and Lysander. Everyone is favorably reconciled.
Most modern romantic comedies fade out at this point – the moment of “they lived happily ever after.” But Shakespeare goes on to give us his little play within a play. Perhaps he means to merely save his biggest laughs for last. He comedically presents eros again. Yet both Pyramus and Thisby die. Perhaps he means for us to at least briefly consider tragic consequences of eros without becoming lachrymose. Perhaps he wishes us to ponder Romeo and Juliet.
Certainly, though, we have come full circle with our contemplation. All walls of separation are gone. Snout is adamant: “No, I assure you; the wall is down that parted their fathers” (V.1.357-58). Shakespeare has supplied the poetic imagery necessary for reconstituting Midsummer’s particular thematic love as eros – young, blind, crazy love, the lovesickness that results when separated from the object of one’s desire. We leave the theater thoroughly entertained by a comedy. Yet we do not depart with only laughs as our purchase. We would do well to entertain the quite plausible notion that Shakespeare also means to remind us of Ancient Greek wisdom. Eros unhinges us. Observe. Know thyself. Make good use of the mind’s eye. Heart’s desire may lead to trouble.
Carson, Anne. Eros the Bittersweet. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1998.
Fromm, Erich. The Art of Loving. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2006.
Fromm, Erich. To Have or To Be? New York: Continuum, 1976.
Krznaric, Roman. How Should We Live? Great Ideas from the Past for Everyday Life. Katonah, NY:
Blue Bridge, 2013.
Lewis, C.S. The Four Loves. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1960.
Shakespeare, William. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The Comedies of William Shakespeare. Norwalk,
CT: Easton P, 1980.
---. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. Vol. 1. Ed. W.G. Clark
and W. Aldis Wright. New York: Nelson Doubleday, n.d.
 Please note that “chink” refers to “a narrow opening or crack, typically one that admits light” or, in Midsummer, also sounds, words, opportunities – and lovers’ schemes.
 Rapunzel, a German fairy tale first published in 1812, shares similarities with a folk tale of late seventeenth century France and even a tenth-century Persian tale.
 Some disagreement still exists as to whether Midsummer should be placed chronologically before or after Romeo and Juliet, so within Midsummer, Pyramus and Thisby may secondarily serve to remind or to tease.
 “Marry, our play is, The most Lamentable Comedy and most Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisby” (I.2.11-13).
 The West Virginia University College of Creative Arts, School of Theater and Dance, put on roughly a dozen performances of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in late fall of 2014. Of the three I fortunately attended, a Saturday evening, December 6, performance was particularly memorable. Cast members tweaked it quite nicely.
 C.S. Lewis provides a Christian perspective on basic human loves in his classic work, The Four Loves. Roman Krznaric walks readers through six varieties of love in How Should We Live? Searching the internet for “Greek words for love” returns several web sites that delineate types of love – up to seven in at least one case.
 Helena of Cupid says, “Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind; / And therefore is wing’d Cupid painted blind” (I.1.234-35). Oberon tells the story of Cupid’s arrow, its affects averted from its intended target, falling upon “a little western flower, / Before milk-white, now purple with love’s wound, / And maidens call it love-in-idleness” (II.1.155-168).
 Hermia skillfully uses this paradox in the woods. She intensifies Lysander’s desire by making him sleep at some distance from her during the night.
 Erich Fromm distinguishes “falling in love” from “standing in love”, the former passive and the latter active. Roman Krznaric refers to Fromm’s work, The Art of Loving, to associate the latter’s sense of mature love with pragma. My personal discovery of Fromm’s writing on love, over a decade ago, was in the pages of To Have or To Be?, where Fromm states: “Since loving is a productive activity, one can only stand in love or walk in love; one cannot ‘fall’ in love, for falling denotes passivity” (45). Eros desires the receipt of love. A more mature, more developed, more enduring (some might also say more virtuous) love, called pragma, looks to give love.
 Shakespeare carefully chooses to “remedy” Demetrius and Lysander, while Titania is “released” from “enamor” for her ass. Oberon “undoes” the “hateful imperfection of her eyes” (IV.1.68). As suggested by Matt Feldman, a WVU senior theater major completing his capstone project, the distinction may lie in the difference between mortals and fairies. Another possibility may be that Titania’s mad love was not challenged with separation; that is, the triangle of lover, beloved, and lack necessary for eros did not exist.
 Oberon’s magic spell on Demetrius cannot be discounted here. But certainly Helena’s requited, unobstructed love obviates the triangular foundation necessary for eros. Some other type of love is now in place.