For Freud, we escape from reality into dreams, and then encounter in it what is so real and traumatic that we escape from dreams (desperately) back into reality. This is how we should read the play. It is not a comedy, but the more tragic of all because it ends happily. The middle portion where love is exposed in its transience, violence, and hideousness is what really is there, and the happy ending is nothing but a dream. The dream of the midsummer’s night is that awakening.
Love is a lightning, a dream, something that is so glorious and real, but which for that reason fades so quickly. It appears “too bright for our infirm delight.” It destroys us. It is that moment of light in between eternities. of darkness.
Or, if there were a sympathy in choice,
War, death, or sickness did lay siege to it,
Making it momentary as a sound,
Swift as a shadow, short as any dream,
Brief as the lightning in the collied night;
That, in a spleen, unfolds both heaven and Earth,
And ere a man hath power to say “Behold!”
The jaws of darkness do devour it up.
So quick bright things come to confusion.
Love is the moment of subjectivity. Only then are we truly free, in that sudden strike of love that seems to come nowhere and leaves just as soon. Lacan called a signifier “that which presents the subject to another signifier.” He meant to say that what we perceive as a subject is just this entity thrown around by the chain of signifiers, with no subjectivity, no autonomy, of its own. Only in love does the subject become “that which presents a signifier to another signifier”—that is, only then do we create meaning ex nihilo, do we create a connection from one signifier to the next that strikes traumatically like a lightning.
But we cannot choose who to love. We have no choice in the “fall” in falling in love. We are coerced by gravity down, but in this we are free. Love is the most paradoxical thing. It defies all reason. It is beyond reason.
The more I hate, the more he follows me…
The more I love, the more he hateth me.
Love is an irrational drive. It pursuits in face of the strongest adversities. In fact, adversities only fuel love (C.f. Romeo&Juliet). Without obstacles there is no romance. Similarly, romance dies without obstacles. (DFW wrote an essay on AIDS making exactly the same point: AIDS can be a saving power for that which is waning in freedom—love.) Love is destroyed when its objective is reached—and its destruction takes down the objective too. It is what Žižek means when he says that “we don’t want what we desire, we only want to desire.” In fact, when we achieve all we desire do we realize how futile the pursuit is. Only then are we really lost.
Things base and vile, holding no quantity,
Love can transpose to form and dignity.
Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind.
And therefore is winged Cupid painted blind.
Nor hath Love’s mind of any judgment taste—
Wings and no eyes figure unheedy haste.
And therefore is Love said to be a child,
Because in choice he is so oft beguiled.
As waggish boys in game themselves forswear,
So the boy Love is perjured everywhere.
Love is blind. Much too blind. It is tragically silly. It cares not about content, but transforms only the form—the interpretation. And that is all we need. With each emotion, as Heidegger said, we disclose something about beings. Love discloses that strangest dimension of opposites latent in every thing. It fulfills the alchemical dream of turning dust into gold. Though it is phantasmic, it is not unreal. Reality is this dimension of fantasy. That which causes the fantasy is the real. The Real is like love—this virtual field that we construct our lives around, this field that exerts its influence as non-being. This is love. The rotational force around that non-existing vortex of the real .
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.
Neglect me, lose me. Only give me leave,
Unworthy as I am, to follow you.
What worser place can I beg in your love—
And yet a place of high respect with me—
Than to be usèd as you use your dog? …
I’ll follow thee and make a heaven of hell,
To die upon the hand I love so well.
How irrational can we be? As much as when we are in love. But irrationality makes life worth living. This dimension of the irrational, outside of culture or nature, outside of altruism or egotism, is the dimension of the human. We are human beings in virtue of love.
Can you not hate me, as I know you do,
But you must join in souls to mock me too?
If you were men, as men you are in show,
You would not use a gentle lady so
To vow, and swear, and superpraise my parts,
When I am sure you hate me with your hearts.
You both are rivals, and love Hermia,
And now both rivals to mock Helena—
But being loved is a traumatic affair. One is never adequate for love. To be paired up with the ideal is to be blinded by its light, to fly away from it in pain. Love can be a mockery. It mocks when you love, when you are loved, and when you are not loved. It is the eerie smile of the Cheshire cat that does not fade away.
Love, at last, exposes the ambiguity of human relationships. Intersubjective experience is characterized by misunderstandings, ironies, truthfulness, revelation, and concealment. To accept someone’s love, to trust someone, can only be a leap of faith, and nothing less. Without the Leap, we are lost in the finite (as Kierkegaard would put it), unable to act because “there are no facts, only interpretations.” Subjectivity lies in choosing the interpretation, choosing that object from which one’s entire understanding of the world revolves around.
The play within a play:
Shakespeare loves this trick. In Hamlet, Taming of the Shrew, and that famous monologue in As You Like It (“All the world’s a stage…”—though this was intended as a mockery.)
Although this reminds the audience that what they are watching is fiction, it does not diminish its powers. What Marx calls Fetishistic disavowal has exactly this structure: “I know very well [I’m watching a bunch of lies], but still [I cannot help but treat it as true]…”. In fact, this meta-understanding may enhance the theatrical experience. Fiction breathes like reality because reality is structured like a fiction. Truth is structured as lies.
We need fiction because the best way to lie is to tell the truth, and the best way to tell the truth is to lie.
This is why Shakespeare has the play within the play.