Oberon was wondering whether Titania had woken up and what it was that she first saw when she did. He smiled to himself. She would be in love with whatever it was. His answer came in the form of his servant, Puck.
‘Well now, mad spirit!’ said Oberon. ‘What sport has there been in this haunted grove?’
‘My mistress is in love with a monster!’ said Puck gleefully. ‘While she was sleeping in her hallowed bower a motley crew of yokels – common working men who earn their living in the workshops of Athens – met near her in the clearing to rehearse a play for great Theseus’ wedding day celebrations. The most ignorant and thick of that ignorant bunch, who was playing Pyramus in their play, left the stage and went into a thicket. I took advantage of that and stuck an ass’s head on him Eventually he had to answer his cue from Thisbe so out comes this would-be actor. As soon as they see him they fly off like wild geese that have spotted a bird catcher or like red headed jackdaws rising and cawing at a gun’s shot, separating and sweeping crazily across the sky. And at the stamping of my feet one of them tumbles head-over-heels and cries ‘murder!’ and prays for help from Athens. Their brains are so shattered with fear that ordinary things begin to harm them. Briars and thorns snatch at their clothes, their sleeves, their hats. I led them on in this confused terror and left the lovely Pyramus there, transformed. It so happened that just at that moment Titania woke up and instantly fell in love with an ass!’
Oberon laughed. ‘This is even better than I had intended,’ he said. ‘But have you wet the Athenian’s eyes with the love-juice as I told you to?’
‘I did it while he was asleep, so that’s done too. And the Athenian woman was at his side so that when he woke up he couldn’t have missed her.’
‘Quick, hide!’ said Oberon as two mortals were heard approaching.
They flew up among the leaves of a tree and watched as Hermia and Demetrius, arguing furiously, stopped beneath the tree.
‘This is the Athenian I told you about,’ whispered Oberon.
Puck was confused. ‘This is the woman,’ he said, ‘but that’s not the man!’
‘Oh why are you scolding a man who loves you so much?’ Demetrius was saying. ‘Save those bitter words for your worst enemy.’
‘This is nothing!’ she snapped. ‘I should be speaking more bitterly because I fear that you may have given me reason to curse you! If you’ve killed Lysander in his sleep and are already steeped in blood, go all the way and kill me too! The sun isn’t as faithful to the day as he was to me. Would he have stolen away from his sleeping Hermia? I’d sooner believe that the whole earth has had a hole bored through it big enough for the moon to go through to disrupt the time of day in the Antipodes. You must have murdered him. And you look like a murderer: so deadly grim!’
‘That’s what the murdered look like, and that’s why I look like that – stabbed in the heart by your extreme cruelty. And yet you, the murderer, look as bright and clear as Venus up there, shining in her orbit.’
‘What’s that got to do with Lysander? Where is he? Oh, good Demetrius, won’t you give him back to me?’
‘I’d rather give his carcass to my hounds!’ he exclaimed. He tried to embrace her and she pushed him so violently that he fell over.
‘Get away, you dog!’ She kicked him as he lay on the ground. ‘You cur! You’re pushing me beyond what’s fitting for maidenly patience! Have you killed him then? From now on, don’t call yourself human! Tell the truth for once in your life, if only for my sake. Would you have dared to face him if he had been awake? And so you killed him while he was asleep? How brave! Couldn’t a worm, couldn’t a snake have done that? A snake did do it! No snake ever stung with such a double tongue as yours, you snake!’
He got up slowly, warily watching her foot. ‘You’re wasting your anger on the wrong person. I’m not guilty of Lysander’s murder. Nor is he dead, for all I know.’
‘Then tell me, if you please, that he’s alive.’
‘Even if I could, what would you give me?’
‘The privilege of never seeing me again! And on that note I’ll leave your hated presence. Don’t come near me again, whether he’s dead or not!’
She turned and ran, disappearing among the trees.
There was no following her in this angry mood, so he would stay there for a while. The weight of his sorrow was getting even heavier, and made even worse by the lack of sleep. He could at least do something about that, by having a nap. He lay down and immediately fell asleep.
Puck looked apprehensively at his king. Oberon floated to the ground and stood gazing thoughtfully at the sleeping Demetrius. He looked up slowly and beckoned silently to his trembling servant. Puck joined him.
‘What have you done?’ said Oberon. ‘You made a big mistake. You put the love-juice on some genuine lover’s eyes. Your bungling will definitely have destroyed true love instead of correcting false love.’
‘Then fate has over-ruled me,’ said Puck. ‘For every man who keeps faith a million fail, cancelling all the kept promises.’
‘Go!’ said Oberon. ‘Go all through the woods, faster than the wind, and make sure you find Helena of Athens! She’s very love-sick and pale, having lost all her natural colour. Trick her in some way and make sure you bring her here! I’ll charm his eyes in preparation for her arrival.’
Puck stood for a moment and Oberon glared at him. ‘I’m going, I’m going,’ said Puck. ‘Look how fast I’m going: faster than an arrow from a Tartar’s bow.’ His laughter faded as he got further away.
Oberon bent over Demetrius and squeezed the juice on his eyelids.
‘Flower of this purple dye,
Strike with Cupid’s archery,
Strike the pupil of his eye.
When his love he first does spy,
Let her shine as gloriously
As does Venus in the sky.
When you wake, if she is by,
Beg of her the remedy.’
Puck was back:
‘Captain of our fairy band.
Helena is here at hand,
And the youth that I mistook
Pleading for a loving look.
Shall we their foolish antics see?
Lord, what fools these mortals be!’
‘Stand aside: the noise they make
Will cause Demetrius to wake.’
‘Then both will woo fair Helena.
What fun, what fun, my Governor.
Things that most appeal to me,
Are things that work preposterously.’
They went back to their hiding place.
Helena was running. Lysander made an effort and got in front of her, blocking her way.
‘Why do you think I’m mocking you? Scornfulness is never accompanied by tears. I always cry when I declare my love. Vows that are born in tears like this are always genuine. How can my feelings seem scornful to you when my tears prove them to be genuine?’
‘You’re becoming more cunning by the minute,’ she said. ‘When truth to one kills a vow to the other that’s really genuine! These vows belong to Hermia. Have you ditched her? If you make a vow to one and then to the other your vows are meaningless. If you put both vows on the balances of a scale they’d weigh the same, both as light as a feather.’
‘I didn’t know what I was doing when I swore my love to her.’
‘Nor do you now, I believe, if you’re giving her up.’
‘Demetrius loves her and he doesn’t love you.’
They hadn’t seen the sleeping Demetrius but their arguing woke him now and he opened his eyes. He saw Helena first.
He sat up and rubbed his eyes. ‘Oh Helena!’ he exclaimed. ‘Goddess! Nymph! Such perfection! So divine! How should I describe your eyes? They make crystal seem muddy. How tempting your ripe cherry lips have become! The pure, packed, white snow that caps the Taurus mountains, fanned by the eastern winds, is black as a crow compared with your hand.’ He grasped her hand and tried to kiss it. ‘Oh, let me kiss this pure white princess, this blissful seal of happiness!’
She pulled her hand away. ‘Oh cruel! Oh hell! I see that you’re all determined to make fun of me. If you were decent and had any manners you wouldn’t hurt me like this. Can’t you just hate me, as I know you do, without joining together to mock me as well? If you were the men you seem to be you wouldn’t abuse a gentle lady like this: making vows and swearing your love and exaggerating my qualities when I know that you hate me, really. You’re rivals in loving Hermia. Now you’re rivals in mocking Helena. Very nice! Very manly! To make a poor girl cry with your derision! No gentleman would offend a virgin so badly and try her so sorely, just for fun!’
‘You’re being cruel, Demetrius,’ said Lysander. ‘Don’t be, because you love Hermia. You know that and so do I. Here, with all goodwill, with all my heart, I surrender my share on Hermia’s love to you. And you must surrender your love for Helena to me. I love her and will to my dying day.’
‘You’re both wasting your time!’ exclaimed Helena.
‘Keep your Hermia,’ said Demetrius. ‘I don’t want her. If I ever loved her all that love has gone. My heart was only visiting her and has now returned home to Helena, and it’s going to stay there.’
Lysander appealed to Helena. ‘That’s not true,’ he said.
‘Don’t minimise my feelings, because you don’t understand them,’ said Demetrius. ‘You may pay dearly for it if you do. But look, your love is here. This is your sweetheart.’
Hermia burst into the clearing. Her relief as she saw Lysander was evident. She ran to him. ‘The darkness that stops us from seeing makes the hearing more sensitive,’ she said. ‘I couldn’t see you but I heard you, and here I am. But why did you leave me so cruelly?’
‘Why should a man stay when love urges him on?’ said Lysander.
‘What love could urge Lysander away from me?’
‘Lysander’s beloved,’ he said, ‘that wouldn’t let him stay. Beautiful Helena, who lights the night more brightly than all those fiery stars and planets. Why are you looking for me? Can’t you see that my hatred for you made me leave you like that?
‘You don’t mean that,’ she said. ‘It can’t be!’
‘Aha!’ exclaimed Helena. ‘She’s part of this conspiracy! Now I understand that all three of you have joined in this cruel game to get at me. What an insult! Hermia, you’re a most ungrateful girl! Are you a part of this? Have you conspired with them to torment me with this cruel mockery? Have you forgotten all the confidences we’ve shared, the sister’s vows the hours that we’ve spent together, resenting the swiftly passing time for parting us? Our friendship from schooldays and our early childhood innocence? Hermia! We’ve sat like two gods doing their creative work. We’ve worked together closely, weaving a flower on a tapestry together, shared one cushion, sung the same song in the same key as if our hands, our sides, our voices and our minds had been one. That’s how we grew up together: like a double cherry, appearing separate but really one cherry divided into two parts: two lovely berries growing on one stem, sharing one heart, although with two bodies. We were like a coat of arms on a shield, one on either side but crowned with a single crest. And you want to tear our longstanding love apart! By joining with two men in mocking me! It’s unfriendly and unfeminine. Any woman would agree, but I’m the only one you’re doing it to.’
‘I’m amazed by this outburst,’ said Hermia. ‘I’m not mocking you. I feel that you’re mocking me!’
‘Haven’t you put Lysander up to following me, praising my eyes and face in mockery? And made your other lover, Demetrius, who kicked me just a few minutes ago, call me a goddess, ‘nymph’, divine and unique, precious, heavenly? Why is he saying that to a woman he hates? And why is Lysander denying that he loves you, when he loves you so much? And swear love for me, for God’s sake, if you hadn’t put him up to it? And I – not nearly as blessed as you – so smothered in love, so lucky, but miserable in loving, but not being loved in return. You should pity me rather than despise me!’
‘I don’t know what you’re talking about!’ exclaimed Hermia.
‘Oh yes, I believe you! Go on, put on sad looks, pull faces behind my back, wink at each other and keep this hilarious joke going. This will be a classic prank. If you had any pity, compassion or manners you wouldn’t do this to me! But goodbye. It’s partly my own fault, although my death or disappearance will soon put it right!’
Helena turned to go but Lysander grabbed her hand. ‘Don’t go, dear Helena,’ he said. ‘Listen to me. My love, my life, dearest Helena!’
‘Oh, very funny!’ said Helena.
Hermia took hold of Lysander’s other hand. ‘Dearest, don’t mock her like that,’ she said.
Lysander pulled his hand away and turned his back on her. ‘I love you, Helena,’ he continued. ‘On my life, I do. I swear by this life I would lose on your behalf, to fight any man who says I don’t love you!’
Demetrius took her other hand and fell on his knees too. ‘I insist, I love you more than he could ever!’
Lysander sprang up. ‘Do you? Then come with me and prove it!’
‘Come on then!’ said Demetrius. ‘Quickly!’
Hermia pulled at Lysander’s sleeve. ‘Lysander!’ she pleaded, ‘where’s this going?’
Lysander struggled to free himself. ‘Get off, you black…!’ he shouted,’ but she hung on.
Demetrius pointed at him. ‘That’s right,’ he said, ‘make out as though you can’t shake her off. You’re a coward. Bah!’
Hermia had strengthened her grip on his sleeve and now she tripped him up, and as he fell to the ground she jumped on him and pinned him down, straddling him.
‘Get off me, you cat!’ he shouted. ‘You burr, you vile thing. Let go, or I’ll shake you off like a snake!’
‘Why have you turned so nasty?’ she said. She tried to kiss him and he turned his head from side to side, avoiding her lips. ‘Why this change, my darling love?’
‘Your love?’ Get off!’ he yelled. ‘You swarthy Tartar! Get off me you foul-tasting medicine. Get away!’
She pushed his shoulders firmly against the ground and held them there. ‘Surely you’re joking,’ she said.
Helena watched them struggling. She wasn’t convinced. ‘Yes he is,’ she said, ‘and so are you.’
Demetrius was laughing, a loud, forced, hollow laugh.
‘My challenge still stands, Demetrius!’ exclaimed Lysander, still struggling to get Hermia off him.
‘I wish your guarantor were here!’ exclaimed Demetrius, still laughing. ‘You don’t seem very strongly supported.’ He watched his opponent trying in vain to free himself from this tiny but determined woman. ‘Your word isn’t bond enough for me!’
‘What? Do you want me to hurt her, hit her, kill her? As much as I hate her I can’t hurt her like that.’
Helena slapped his cheek hard. ‘What? Do you think you could hurt me more than you do by hating me? Hate me, do you?’ She slapped his other cheek. Why? Aren’t I Hermia? Aren’t you Lysander? I haven’t changed. You loved me this afternoon and yet you left me tonight. So when you left me sleeping…’ She gasped as the realisation struck her. ‘Oh, God forbid! Must I accept that you meant it?’
‘Yes, on my life,’ he shouted. ‘And I never wanted to see you again. So abandon hope: abandon argument, abandon doubt. Understand that nothing could be more true. I’m not joking. I hate you and I love Helena.’
Hermia stared down at him. His face was red and contorted. She could see he meant it. She got up slowly, allowing him to sit up.
‘Poor me,’ she said. Then she turned on Helena, her eyes blazing. ‘You cheat!’ she exclaimed. ‘You deceiver, you love thief! What? Have you come under cover of darkness and stolen my love’s heart from him?’
‘That’s rich, coming from you,’ said Helena. ‘Have you no modesty, no maidenly shame, no blushes? Are you trying to provoke me into going against my nature and answer you roughly? Shame on you, you phoney. You… puppet, you!’
‘Puppet?’ said Hermia. ‘Oh, I see it now: I understand your game. She’s comparing our heights now. She’s bragged about how tall she is. And she’s used that to win him over. And have you become so high in his esteem because I’m so short and dwarfish?’ She advanced on Helena and stood before her. ‘Go on, tell me, how short am I? I’m not too short for my nails to reach your eyes!’
Lysander and Demetrius acted as one: each grabbed an arm, preventing her from touching Helena.
Helena stepped back in alarm. ‘Please gentlemen, although this is some kind of joke, don’t let her hurt me. I’ve never been cussed, I’m not in any way shrewish: I’m a typically modest girl. Don’t let her hit me. You probably think I can match her because she’s shorter than me.’
Hermia had been struggling against the strong grasp of her captors and she squirmed even more at that. ‘Shorter! Did you hear that? She said it again!’
There were tears in Helena’s eyes. ‘Dear friend, Hermia,’ she said. ‘Don’t be so bitter with me. I’ve always loved you, Hermia, always kept your secrets: never done you wrong, except that because of my love for Demetrius, I told him about your plan to steal away to this wood. He followed you and I followed him out of love. But he has told me to leave him, threatened to hit me, and yes, even kill me.’ She gave him a reproachful look and he was about to object, but she stopped him with a raised hand. ‘And now, if you’ll let me go quietly, I’ll take my foolishness back to Athens and leave you alone. Let me go. You see how naive and stupid I am?’
They had loosened their grip on Hermia and she glared at Helena. ‘Well go then! Who’s stopping you?’
‘A foolish heart, that I’m going to leave behind here.’
‘What? With Lysander?’
Hermia looked as though she was going to attack Helena again and Lysander stepped in front of Helena. ‘’Don’t be afraid,’ he said. ‘She won’t hurt you!’
Demetrius also came between them. ‘No, sir, she won’t,’ he said. ‘Even though you’re ‘protecting’ her.’ He laughed scornfully.
‘Oh, when she’s angry she’s sharp-tongued and spiteful,’ said Helena. ‘She was a vixen at school, and although she’s tiny, she’s fierce.’
‘Tiny!’ exclaimed Hermia. ‘Again! Nothing but short, and tiny? How can you let her insult me like this? Let me get at her!
Both men moved to stop her. ‘Be off with you, you dwarf!’ said Lysander. ‘You midget, made of tangle-weed! You bead! You acorn!’
Demetrius pushed Lysander. ‘You’re sticking your nose in where you’re not wanted. She doesn’t need your help. Leave her alone. Don’t utter Helena’s name, and don’t speak for her. Just show any love for her at all and you’ll regret it.’
‘She’s not holding on to me now, so follow me, if you dare, to decide who has the greatest right to Helena!’ said Lysander.
He turned and began walking. Demetrius caught up with him. ‘Follow you? No, I’ll go with you, side by side!’ They walked swiftly into the wood, their hands on their swords.
Hermia rounded angrily on Helena. ‘You, madam!’ she exclaimed. ‘All this trouble is because of you!’ Helena turned to run. ‘No, don’t go!’ shouted Hermia.
‘I don’t trust you,’ said Helena. ‘And I won’t stay here in your cursed company any longer. Your hands are more ready for a fight than mine are, but my legs are longer, though, to run away.’
She plunged into the wood and Hermia stood for a moment. She was stunned and didn’t know what to think about it all. Then she ran after Helena.
Oberon floated down from the tree branch and beckoned to Puck. The Fairy King looked sternly at him. ‘This is your negligence,’ he said. ‘Another mistake. Or else you’re playing roguish tricks on purpose.’
‘Believe me, king of spirits,’ said Puck, ‘I made a mistake. Didn’t you tell me I would know the man by the Athenian clothes he was wearing? So I’m not entirely to blame, because I did anoint an Athenian’s eyes. And I’m pleased with the way it turned out because it was great fun.’
‘You saw that these lovers were looking for a place to fight,’ said Oberon, ‘so go, Robin, and cloud the sky with a low-lying fog, as black as Acheron, the river of Hell, and lead these angry rivals astray so that they won’t find each other. Imitate Lysander’s voice and provoke Demetrius with spiteful comments, then, at another time, rave like Demetrius. And in that way, make sure that you keep them apart till a heavy sleep, on leaden legs and bat-like wings, creeps over their eyes. Then crush this herb into Lysander’s eyes: its juice has the special power to remove all errors and make his eyes see as they did before. When they wake up all this nonsense will seem like a meaningless dream. And they’ll all find their way back to Athens with a close friendship that will last for the rest of their lives. And while I have you working on this task I’ll go to my queen and beg the Indian boy from her. And then I’ll release her from the monster and everything will be fine.’
‘My fairy lord, this must be done quickly. The night is almost over. The morning star is heralding the dawn and wandering ghosts are returning to churchyards. The spirits of the damned, who are buried at crossroads, or who lie in the rivers in which they drowned, have already gone back to their wormy graves, afraid that their shame will be exposed in daylight. They deliberately avoid the light, so they must consort with the black night for eternity.’
‘But we are spirits of a different kind,’ said Oberon. ‘I’ve often flirted with the sun and can walk in the forest groves like any forester, even after dawn. But in any case, hurry: don’t waste time. We could get this business done before the day begins.’
Puck watched Oberon disappear into the wood then looked around. When he found them he would lead them up and down and all over the place. The moon had disappeared behind a cloud and it was pitch black. Ah, here was one of them, shouting. It was Lysander. Puck darted behind a tree.
‘Where are you? Arrogant Demetrius, say something now!’
Puck peeped round the tree trunk. Imitating Demetrius’ voice he shouted back at Lysander: ‘I’m here, villain Ready and drawn. Where are you?’
‘I’m coming to get you,’ said Lysander.
‘Follow me, then to flatter ground,’ said Demetrius’ voice.
Lysander followed the direction of the voice and Puck doubled back and listened to him crashing through the undergrowth. And here was Demetrius, straining to hear Lysander’s voice.
‘Lysander!’ he called. ‘Say something. You runaway: you coward! Have you run away? Speak!’ He began poking about in the bushes with his sword. ‘Are you in one of these bushes? Where are you hiding?’
Puck imitated Lysander’s voice: ‘You coward,’ he shouted. ‘You’re only bragging to the stars, telling the bushes that you want a fight, but won’t come. Come on, you baby. Come on, little boy: I’ll thrash you with a cane – it would be an insult to my sword to draw it on you!’
‘You will, will you?’ said Demetrius. ‘You’re there, are you?’
‘Follow my voice,’ shouted Puck. ‘We won’t test our manhood here.’
Needless to say, they didn’t encounter each other, and Puck exhausted them with his tricks and illusions. Eventually Lysander could take no more and he stopped, gasping for breath.
‘He goes ahead of me and keeps daring me on,’ he said, so tired that he talked to himself. ‘When I go towards his voice he’s gone again. The villain is far more light-footed than I am. I followed him as fast as I could but he ran even faster, and now I find myself on a piece of bumpy ground. I’m going to rest here.’
He closed his eyes. He would wait till daylight and as soon as the dawn arose he would find Demetrius and take his revenge. Before long he was snoring.
It took no more than a minute for Puck to find Demetrius, who was taking a few steps then stopping to listen, a few more steps, stopping, listening. And then he heard Lysander’s voice: ‘Oh ho, coward! What’s keeping you?’
‘Wait for me if you dare!’ shouted Demetrius. ‘I’m fully aware that you’re running ahead of me and moving all over the place, and daren’t stop and face me. Where are you now?’
‘Come on,’ called Puck. ‘I’m here!’
‘Fine, then,’ said Demetrius. ‘You choose to mock me instead. You’ll pay for this as soon as I see your face by daylight. Suit yourself then: I’m so tired that I’m forced to stop and stretch out on this cold ground. But be sure that I’ll get you when it’s light.’ He lay down and fell into a deep sleep.
By co-incidence, Helena, also lost and tired, wandered on to the piece of ground where the two young men lay asleep. She didn’t see them. What a weary night it had been, what a long and tedious night. She wished it could be shorter, that comfort would come from the east so that she could go back to Athens by daylight, far away from her erstwhile friends who disliked her company so much now. She decided to lie down and try to sleep. Sleep sometimes made you forget your sorrows and removed you from your own company for a while. She lay down and fell asleep immediately.
Puck hadn’t finished yet. There were still only three. One more, and it would make up two pairs of lovers. Ah, but here she was, looking sad and angry. Cupid was a knavish child, to drive poor women mad like this.
Hermia staggered into the clearing and sank to the ground. She had never been so tired, and never been so unhappy. She was wet with the dew, torn with briars: she couldn’t crawl an inch further, much as she would like to, but her legs wouldn’t let her. She would rest there till daylight. Her last thought as she slipped into sleep was a plea to heaven to protect Lysander if they really intended to fight.
All four lay sleeping on the ground. Puck knew that it was Lysander who had to have the spell taken off him. Demetrius would still be in love with Helena when he woke up so there was nothing that had to be done in his case. He went and knelt beside Lysander.
‘On the ground
To your eye
Gentle lover, remedy.’
He squeezed the juice on Lysander’s eyes.
‘When you awake
You will take
In the sight
Of your former lady’s eye.’
The saying, ‘every man is entitled to his own’ would be proved when he woke up. Jack would have his Jill and nothing would go ill. The man will have his mare again and all will be well.