The young Duke of Athens was in a good mood as he led his bride-to-be into the garden. Quite a conquest she was, in more ways than one. She was Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons. He had just defeated the Amazons in battle and their queen was a warrior as brave and skilled as any man he had encountered. She was beautiful and brave, and although he had won the battle, he had lost his heart. They had fallen in love and that was that.
Philostrate, a party arranger, followed them into the garden. He had come to discuss the wedding arrangements with the couple because Theseus was determined to have a big and joyous public celebration.
‘Our wedding day is very close, dear Hippoplyta,’ Theseus was saying as they strolled among the brightly coloured flowers. ‘The new moon will rise in four days.’ He stopped and looked at her. ‘What a long time the old moon is taking to go down! It’s making time drag in the way a long-lived stepmother or widow makes time drag for a young man who longs for his inheritance.’
Hippolyta laughed at his metaphor. ‘Four days will quickly turn into four nights and we’ll just dream those nights away,’ she assured him. ‘And soon the new moon, like a silver bow in the sky, will see the night of our celebrations.’
‘Go, Philostrate,’ said Theseus, ‘Stir the young people of Athens up into festive mood. Get the spirit of joy moving among them. Sadness is for funerals: there’s no room for it at our celebration.’
As Philostrate left on his pleasant mission, Theseus invited Hippolyta to sit down on a bench. He took her hand. ‘Hippolyta,’ he said, ‘I pursued you as a conqueror, and won your love while doing you harm. But I’ll marry you with celebration, joy and partying.’
The calm of their moment alone in the garden was interrupted by the arrival of an elderly, prominent citizen, who was arguing loudly with some attendants who wouldn’t let him pass. Theseus waved his consent and Egeus strode determinedly across the lawn towards him, followed by his pretty daughter Hermia and two young men.
‘Long live Theseus, our distinguished duke!’ exclaimed Egeus.
‘Thanks, good Egeus,’ said Theseus. ‘And what’s the news with you?’ He looked enquiringly at the three young people. Hermia was grim-faced and the two young men stared at the ground in embarrassment.
‘I’m furious!’ exclaimed Egeus. ‘I’ve got a problem with my daughter Hermia.’ He beckoned to one of the young men. ‘Step forward, Demetrius.’ He put his hand on the young man’s back. ‘My noble lord, this man has my consent to marry her.’ He looked over his shoulder at the other young man. ‘Lysander!’ he barked. ‘Step forward!’
Both young men now stood facing the duke, one on either side of Egeus.
‘This one, my gracious duke,’ wagging a finger at Lysander, ‘has put some kind of spell on her. You… you, Lysander! You have given her poems, and exchanged love-tokens with my child. You have sung beneath her window by moonlight – so-called songs of so-called love! And captured her mind with bracelets of your hair, and rings and ribbons, and baubles, games, toys, knick-knacks, posies, sweets – things giddy girls are easily swayed by. You’ve cunningly stolen her heart and turned her obedience, which I’m entitled to, to obstinate wilfulness.’ Egeus paused briefly to take a breath then rushed on. ‘And, my gracious duke, if she won’t consent to marry Demetrius, right here, in front of your grace, then I claim my ancient Athenian right that, as she is mine, I can do whatever I like with her. She will either marry this gentleman, Demetrius, or die according to the law in such matters.’
Theseus was a good and compassionate ruler but there were some things that were beyond his power to control. This ancient right of citizens was one of them. Egeus was only claiming his right under the law, however grim the prospect of that may be. Theseus sighed. He stood up and went to Hermia then invited her to sit beside him, which she did.
‘What do you say, Hermia?’ he said. ‘Let me advise you, my dear young woman. Your father should be like a god to you. He’s the one who gave you your beauty. Indeed, he stamped your form in wax and can reshape it or melt it as he likes.’ He patted her hand. ‘Demetrius is a good gentleman.’
‘So is Lysander,’ she said.
Theseus nodded. ‘In himself he is,’ he agreed. ‘But in this situation, lacking your father’s blessing, the other one must be regarded as the better.’
‘I wish my father saw through my eyes,’ she said.
Theseus shook his head. ‘You have to see things his way,’ he said.
Hermia cleared her throat. She glanced at Lysander then addressed the duke. ‘I do beg your Grace’s pardon,’ she said. ‘I don’t know where I’ve found the courage to speak out, nor whether it’s proper to say what I think here, but I would ask your grace to tell me what the worst thing is that could happen to me if I refuse to marry Demetrius.’
‘Either to suffer death or never to have anything to do with men again,’ said Theseus. ‘Therefore, fair Hermia, think about what you want. Think about how young you are: examine your feelings carefully: whether, if you don’t give in to your father’s choice, you can endure a nun’s habit: and be cooped up forever in some dark cloister, living a childless virgin all your life, singing soulless hymns to the cold, barren moon. Those who can control their passions to undertake a lifetime of virginity are thrice blessed, but the more earthly rose that gives off its perfume is happier than the one that’s forced to wither on the untouched stem, growing, living and dying in single blessedness.’
‘I will grow, live and die like that, my lord, rather than surrender my virginity to a husband whose unwanted authority my soul hasn’t consented to accept,’ she said.
Theseus stared at her. Her father was sure of his victory and the two young men waited. ‘I’ll give you time to think about it,’ he said, at last. ‘By the next new moon, the day on which my love and I seal the everlasting bond of marriage – on that day, either prepare to die for disobeying your father’s demand, or else marry Demetrius, as he wishes, or take an oath of chastity and live a single, austere life forever.’
‘Change your mind, sweet Hermia,’ said Demetrius. ‘And you, Lysander, give your ridiculous claim up to my certain right.’
Lysander laughed. ‘You have her father’s love, Demetrius: ‘Let me have Hermia’s. You marry him!’
‘True, sarcastic Lysander,’ said Egeus, ‘he has my love. And out of that love I will give him what’s mine. She is mine and I hand over all my rights in her to Demetrius.’
Lysander glanced at Hermia and she nodded slightly. He faced the duke bravely. ‘My lord, I come from as good a family as he does. I’m as wealthy, I love her more than he does: my prospects are as good as, if not better than, his. And, above all, beautiful Hermia loves me. Why shouldn’t I insist on my rights? Demetrius – I’ll say it to his face – courted Nedar’s daughter, Helena, and won her heart. And she, sweet lady, worships and idolises this flawed and unfaithful man.’
Instead of being angry Theseus listened attentively. ‘I must confess that I have heard as much,’ he said, ‘and I was going to talk to Demetrius about it but I overlooked it because I was preoccupied with my personal affairs. But Demetrius, come with me now, and you too, Egeus, I have some advice for both of you in private. As for you, fair Hermia, steel yourself to match your desires to your father’s will or else the law of Athens, which I can’t change, will either condemn you to death or to a vow of lifelong chastity.’ He got up. ‘Come my Hippolyta.’
Hippolyta was looking at Hermes and there were tears in her eyes.
‘Cheer up, my love,’ said Theseus. ‘Demetrius and Egeus, come along. There’s something I want you to do for my wedding celebration, and also, we need to talk about those personal matters.’
When they had gone Lysander joined Hermia on the bench, where she sat, staring at nothing. He took her hand. ‘Well now, my love?’ he said. ‘What pale cheeks? How fast the roses have faded there.’
‘Probably lack of rain, which I could provide with tears.’
‘Ah yes,’ said Lysander. ‘From all that I’ve read and heard, the course of true love never ran smoothly. But it was either something about the class difference or…’
‘Oh what a cross to have to bear!’ she exclaimed. ‘Being too high-born to be allowed to fall in love with someone ‘beneath’ me!’ She laughed in spite of herself.
‘Or else our ages were badly matched…’ Lysander put his thumb in his mouth and sucked it like a child.
‘Oh cruel!’ she exclaimed dramatically. ‘Too old to be engaged to someone so young!’
‘Or else your relations had something to say about it…’
‘Oh hell! To have others choose one’s lover!’
‘Or even if everyone approved, our hope was threatened by war, death or sickness, making it as fleeting as a sound, swift as a shadow, short as a dream: as brief as lightning in the coal-black night, when it illuminates both heaven and earth in its anger,’ he said. ‘And before one can say ‘Look!’ it’s swallowed by darkness again. That’s how quickly bright hopes are destroyed.’
Lysander didn’t seem unduly upset about these events and his light-hearted tone encouraged her. He was actually smiling! She shrugged. ‘If lovers have always been crossed then it must be one of life’s rules,’ she said. ‘We’ll just have to bear it with patience if it’s such a common thing: as much a part of love as thoughts, dreams and sighs, wishes, tears are – all companions of love.’
Lysander smiled broadly and took her hand. ‘A good argument,’ he said. ‘So listen to me then, Hermia. I have a widowed aunt, an elderly lady – very rich – and she has no children. Her house is seven leagues from Athens, and she regards me as her only son. I can marry you there, darling Hermia. The harsh Athenian laws can’t touch us there. If you love me, then slip out of your father’s house tomorrow night and I’ll wait for you in the wood a league outside town, in that place where I encountered you and Helena on that May morning.’
Ah, no wonder he was being so cheerful. He had a plan! She threw herself down on her knees and put her hand over her heart. ‘Oh Lysander!’ she exclaimed. ‘I swear to you. By Cupid’s most powerful bow: by his swiftest, gold-tipped arrow: by the… fidelity of the sacred doves of Venus…’
Lysander revolved his hand in a winding-up motion and nodded, indicating that he wanted her to continue, to swear by more things.
‘Um… By whatever unites souls and makes love prosper…’
Lysander wasn’t satisfied. He nodded solemnly for more.
‘By the fire in which Dido destroyed herself when she saw the false Aeneas sailing away…’ She tried to get up but he raised a finger for more. ‘By all the vows that men have ever broken,’ she said, brushing his finger aside and getting up. ‘And there have been many more of those than women have ever uttered!’ She sat down beside him again. ‘I swear that I’ll meet you in the place you mentioned.’
He kissed her hand. ‘Keep your promise, my love,’ he said.
There was no sign of her father, or Demetrius. They strolled to the palace gate and walked happily towards Hermes’ house.
‘Look, here comes Helena,’ said Lysander, as that young woman swept into view, walking fast.
‘God’s speed, beautiful Helena!’ said Hermia. ‘Where are you off to?’
Helena stopped and looked suspiciously down at Hermia. She was taller, less full-figured, and, although very pretty, had nothing like the stunning looks of her friend. ‘Are you calling me beautiful?’ she said. ‘Take that ‘’beautiful’ back. Demetrius loves your kind of beauty. Oh lucky you! Your eyes are magnets and your voice is more pleasing than the lark’s song is to a shepherd in spring, when the wheat is still green and hawthorn buds appear. I wish that looks were catching, as sickness is – I’d love to catch your looks, fair Hermia, before I go. My ear would catch your voice, my eye your eye: my tongue would catch the modulation of your voice. If I owned the world, I’d give it all, apart from Demetrius, to be you. Oh show me how to look like you and how you control Demetrius’ heart!’
Hermia nodded. She had no idea. ‘I frown at him and yet he still loves me,’ she said.
‘I wish your frowns could teach my smiles something!’ exclaimed Helena.
‘I curse him and he still loves me,’ said Hermia.
‘I wish my prayers could evoke such affection!’ exclaimed Helena.
‘The more I hate him the more he chases me,’ said Hermia.
‘The more I love him the more he hates me,’ said Helena.
‘It’s not my fault that he’s so foolish, Helena.’
‘It’s the fault of your beauty. I wish I had that fault!’
‘Don’t worry,’ said Hermia. ‘He won’t see me again. Lysander and I are going to run away. Before I met Lysander Athens seemed like a paradise. What a wonderful man, that can turn a heaven into a hell.’
‘We’ll confide in you, Helena,’ said Lysander. ‘Tomorrow night, by moonlight, we’re planning to steal through the gates of Athens.’
‘And we’re going to meet in the wood where you and I have often lain on the primrose beds, talking closely together. And then we’re going to turn our backs on Athens and start a new life. Goodbye, dear friend. Pray for us, and good luck with Demetrius.’ Hermia turned to her lover. ‘Keep your promise, Lysander. We’d better stay away from each other till tomorrow night.’
She went into her house. And Lysander carried on walking, to his own house.
Helena, left on her own, walked slowly on, deep in thought. How much happier some people were than others! The whole of Athens considered her as beautiful as Hermia, but so what? Demetrius didn’t think so. He refused to realise what everyone else took for granted. But just as he was mistaken in his obsession with Hermia’s eyes, she was probably at fault, too, for admiring Demetrius’ qualities. Love can transform things that are unpleasant and not to be admired into something beautiful and dignified. Love looks with the mind, not the eyes, and that was why Cupid is always depicted as blind. The mind of love doesn’t have good judgement either: his wings and blindness suggest that he rushes into things without looking. That’s why he’s said to be a child: because he is so easily led. He is deceived everywhere, just as lively boys are, tricking each other all the time in games. Before Demetrius fell in love with Hermia he swore his oaths, thick as hail, to only her. And then the heat from Hermia affected the hailstorm: his love dissolved and the hail showers all melted away.
She would go and tell him about Hermia’s plan to run away. Then he would also go to the wood. If he thanked her at all for the information he would do it grudgingly but it was worth it because she would follow him and at least she would be with him there and back again.