Shakespearean comedies follow a format that includes conflict, a dramatic climax, and a resolution. The conclusion always follows with a “happily ever after” ending where the main characters live in harmony with one another, after the story’s strife is laid to rest. Within A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Twelfth Night Shakespeare creates comedies out of direct hardships for certain characters involved. To be specific, Hermia and Sebastian share similar journeys throughout both of Shakespeare’s comedies. Both are estranged from a person they care about deeply, and both have unforeseen destinies. It is within their character development that the reader sees change, controversy, and the resolving plot twists that are central to the story. However, are these two characters better off than where they were at the beginning of the play, and was any of it their doing?

One can observe the play using these characters more as objects, to be moved around the plot to structure and support the comedic ending. Yet, it did not have to go this way. To flip the script and make this a tragedy Sebastian could have rejected the fair Olivia in Twelfth Night. Also, Hermia could have held the way Lysander acted in chasing Helena against him by rejecting to marry him at the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. These characters are assumed to carry a preference central to the plot’s development, and therefore have they really accomplished anything of their own? The audience watches these two people become alienated from the social structure of the plays’ setting, only to restore their social standing at the end of the play.

To start this journey to restoration the first scene of A Midsummer Night’s Dream begins with Hermia and her father Egeus in the court of Duke Theseus where he tells her what’s the worst that can happen to her if she refuses to honor her father and marry Demetrius. Theseus decrees,

“Either to die the death, or to abjure
Fore ever the society of men.
Therefore, fair Hermia, question your desires.
Know of your youth, examine well your blood,
Whether, if you yield not to your father’s choice,
You can endure the livery of a nun …”
(Act I, Scene I, lines 65-70).

Here the audience learns of the pressure Hermia’s is under to marry a man whom she does not love. With this in mind she takes to the woods with Lysander to escape her dismal fates of either living the rest of her life in a marriage to God, or face the death penalty. Put in this position Hermia reacts as a free person would in creating their own path through life by making choices that lead up to the ending’s resolution. Yet, this is where Shakespeare asserts the supernatural powers of fairies as Hermia, Lysander, Demetrius, and Helena all head out toward the woods and into the domain of Oberon and Puck.

In Twelfth Night Viola fears that Sebastian is now in Elysium because she does not think he survived the shipwreck at the start of this play (Act I, Scene II, lines 4&5). Yet, Sebastian is alive in Illyria as an outsider traveling alongside Antonio (Act II, Scene I, lines 9-19). By comparing these two characters the audience finds the two are alienated from the current social hierarchy with Sebastian avoiding Duke Orsino’s men and Hermia evading Duke Theseus’ ruling. Both are in the wilderness and both stumble across the resolution once returning from the mysterious brush. The loved ones they are estranged from include Viola and Lysander. Who either fight to create a new life to share with each other, or be it unintentional, as with Olivia’s attention Viola captured posing as Cesario. Only then for Sebastian to pose as him and fulfill the comedic ending.

Lysander’s and Hermia’s plans go wrong because of the actions of Puck, who drops love poison in the eyes of Lysander and this leads to him to fall in love with Helena unintentionally. This mistake becomes reconciled by Puck following Oberon’s instructions to fix the new love triangle he originally created. However, it can be argued that this whole confusion started when Hermia refused to lay with Lysander. The dialogue went as follows:

Lysander: One turf shall serve as pillow for us both;
One heart, one bed; two bosoms, and one troth.
Hermia: Nay, good Lysander; for my sake, my dear,
Lie further off yet; do not lie so near
(Act II, Scene II, lines 47-50).

With Lysander sleeping so far away from Hermia, Puck confuses him for Demetrius and drugs Lysander by mistake. Out of this curse Lysander treats Hermia horribly telling her, “Hang off, thou cat, thou burr; vile thing, let loose, Or I will shake thee from me like a serpent” (Act III, Scene II, lines 261&262). However entertaining the increasing drama of this play may be, the reader has to acknowledge the antithetical fixation of this new love triangle with the two men chasing Helena as opposed to Hermia. This paradoxical shift within the love triangle still doesn’t resolve the problem the drama expresses. Now Puck must work his magic and dose Lysander once again or he will hopelessly be trapped in this new love triangle, and forever chase after Helena in vein.

Sebastian has a similar experience at the end of Scene I in Act IV when things just seem to work out. After the fight between Sir Andrew and Viola, Sebastian finds himself taken to Countess Olivia. She confuses him with Cesario and invites him to her house. He is caught off guard by her affections and reflects on this in saying, “What relish is in this? How runs this stream? Or I am mad, or else this is a dream. Let fancy still my sense in Lethe steep. If it be thus to dream, still let me sleep” (Act IV, Scene I, lines 56-59). Sebastian has no idea why Olivia likes him but he most certainly likes her. This moment is just as important as the resolution in Act V Scene I because Sebastian squares a rather pointed love triangle, be it unwittingly. With his sister marrying the Duke Orsino and Olivia along his side, Sebastian is no longer a stranger to Illyria. From the shipwreck to marrying one of the most powerful woman in the region, Sebastian rejoins the social structure; fulfilling a position in the play that he started out so alienated from.

Hermia and Sebastian play central roles in their respective plays because their actions correct disastrous love triangles. Yet, the play uses them for more than this function. Both characters start off in a very trying positions. One can argue that these characters suffer the most compared to all the other characters in their plays. However, that would be excluding the fool Malvolio. The two are estranged from their loved ones by forces outside their control, and yet they still manage to have a happy ending within their conclusions. Another argument to be made is that both characters are actually better off than where they were in the beginning of both plays. Hermia is threatened with death and Sebastian is a castaway in a foreign land. The two pull through, and are free to love whom they want, which finally means being free to simply be themselves. The unnatural expectations placed on these two characters at the beginning of these plays shows a progressive side of Shakespeare who cares about those marginalized by society. If the trend keeps up, like Sebastian and Hermia, we will all be better off in the end. Happiness is there for the choosing, but it is just as important that we don’t lose sight of it by making things more complicated than they need to be.

Works Cited

Shakespeare, William, Stephen Greenblatt, Walter Cohen, Jean E. Howard,
Katharine Eisaman Maus, and Andrew Gurr.
The Norton Shakespeare, Based on the Oxford Edition.
New York: W.W. Norton, 2008. Print.

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