A Midsummer Night's Dream

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Theseus Character Analysis

The Duke of Athens and the fiancé and later the husband of Hippolyta, Theseus is a strong and responsible leader who tries to be fair and sensitive. Though it is his duty to uphold the law, and he does so when both Lysander and Demetrius love Hermia, as soon as the lovers sort themselves out, he overrules Egeus' demand that Hermia marry Demetrius and let the lovers decide for themselves whom to marry. He also treats the laborers decently, despite the fact that their play is atrocious. Though a fearsome warrior (he captured Hippolyta, an Amazon queen, in battle), he is devoted to making her happy. Theseus is, however, extremely literal-minded, and gives little credence to the "fantasies" the lovers recount of their night in the forest.

Theseus Quotes in A Midsummer Night's Dream

The A Midsummer Night's Dream quotes below are all either spoken by Theseus or refer to Theseus. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Love Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Simon & Schuster edition of A Midsummer Night's Dream published in 2004.
Act 1, scene 1 Quotes
But earthlier happy is the rose distilled
Than that which, withering on the virgin thorn,
Grows, lives, and dies in single blessedness. (76)
Related Characters: Theseus (speaker), Hermia
Page Number: 1.1.78-80
Explanation and Analysis:

Hermia asks Theseus what her options will be if she does not marry Demetrius. He explains that the only alternatives are to become a nun or to be put to death but recommends that she elect marriage.

This quote displays the high value in the play placed on romantic love and on marriage. Theseus uses the image of “the rose” to stand for Hermia, and more generally for young women. To be “distilled” may mean literally to be purified and condensed into a single essence, but symbolically it means for her to select a single lover on whom to bestow her love. In this metaphor, “withering on the virgin thorn” means to remain celibate as she would in a convent. In that case, her life would be reduced to the simple progression of “Grows, lives, and dies” because it would be unmarked by significant amorous events. Thus life could be deemed a “single blessedness” because it would involve no meaningful shifts. Theseus recommends against such celibate monotony and encourages Hermia to instead marry Demetrius.

By couching his advice in the metaphor of the rose, however, Theseus makes a comment not just on Hermia, but rather more broadly on womanhood and romantic relationships. His justification, intriguingly, comes from whether one will be “earthlier happy” rather than from any religious or legal framework. Theseus thus shows himself to be acting not only out of deference to Athenian laws, but also out of a personal belief in the merit of romantic love. Shakespeare thus establishes the centrality of romance to the way these characters will act and find meaning in the world.

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Act 4, scene 1 Quotes
I know you two are rival enemies:
How comes this gentle concord in the world,
That hatred is so far from jealousy,
To sleep by hate, and fear no enmity? (129)
Related Characters: Theseus (speaker), Lysander, Demetrius
Page Number: 4.1.148-151
Explanation and Analysis:

Theseus has stumbled upon Lysander and Demetrius sleeping by each other. He wonders how their proximity is possible considering how they had previously battled for Hermia’s favor.

These lines return to the question of shifting identities, for Lysander and Demetrius’ current behaviors are highly surprising in light of their previous ones. Theseus begins with the firm affirmation “I know” and then wonders how their deviation—“gentle concord”—from his knowledge of their rivalry would be possible. He wonders how the “jealousy” that they feel of each other would not inspire “hatred,” for presumably if they did indeed hate each other they would fear “enmity” or some kind of negative retribution. His incredulous response shows that Theseus expects the two to have consistent identities and behaviors—and that he is surprised when Oberon’s exploits have pacified them.

Importantly, this conclusion requires an external viewer—Theseus—to make sense of the way these two men have changed. Others within the forest are similarly bewitched actors in Oberon’s play and thus unable to rationally recognize how quickly they have shifted allegiances. But Theseus is able to stand apart from the action and thus offer this insight. Shakespeare thus makes him an analog for the audience—one who questions character development like any good interpreter.

And yet, at the same time, Theseus's confusion at the change in Lysander and Demetrius's characters again emphasizes how a viewpoint based entirely around "law" and "reason" is insufficient to comprehend or affect a world full of the irrational human feeling of love. 

Act 5, scene 1 Quotes
More strange than true. I never may believe
These antique fables nor these fairy toys.
Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.
The lunatic, the lover, and the poet
Are of imagination all compact. (2)
Related Characters: Theseus (speaker)
Page Number: 5.1.208
Explanation and Analysis:

The lovers have recounted their tale to Theseus and Hippolyte. While Hippolyte is sympathetic to the story, Theseus believes it to be entirely fantastical, with no basis in reality.

His explanation for their stories does not rely on magic or other forms of supernatural possibility. Instead, he contends that it is natural for the addled brains of lovers to experience reality in a warped way. He places in parallel first “lovers and madmen” and then “the lunatic, the lover, and the poet,” contending that each sees the world in fantastical terms that have little to do with reality. Indeed, the similarity between insanity and romance is well-trod territory in Shakespeare’s work—and the new reference to “the poet” is an enticing point. After all, Shakespeare is himself “the poet” of this work, just as Oberon and Puck were "the poets" of the performance in the woods. In both cases, it seems, this role gave them access to unique imaginative capacities.

Theseus, however, sees little value in that mindset. By contrasting the verbs “apprehend” and “comprehends,” he returns to the motif of visual perception, arguing that what lunatics see is distinctly different from the rational conclusions of “cool reason.” He expresses a firm belief in logical rather than experiential knowledge. Yet this allegiance to rationality was unsuccessful at the play’s onset in resolving the lovers’ spat: Shakespeare thus shows the limitations of Theseus’ perspective, implying that value remains in the poet, madman, and lover’s practices, even if they are fundamentally irrational.

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Theseus Character Timeline in A Midsummer Night's Dream

The timeline below shows where the character Theseus appears in A Midsummer Night's Dream. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Act 1, scene 1
Love Theme Icon
Dreams Theme Icon
In the royal palace of Athens, Duke Theseus enters with the Amazon Queen Hippolyta, his fiancé, and Philostrate, his master of revels. Theseus... (full context)
Love Theme Icon
Men and Women Theme Icon
Theseus sends off Philostrate to organize entertainment for the wedding. After Philostrate leaves, Theseus says to... (full context)
Love Theme Icon
Men and Women Theme Icon
The Supernatural Theme Icon
...enters, with his daughter Hermia and her two suitors Lysander and Demetrius. Egeus explains to Theseus that he wants his daughter to marry Demetrius, but that she loves Lysander, who has... (full context)
Men and Women Theme Icon
Theseus speaks to Hermia, advising her to obey her father, and adding that Demetrius is a... (full context)
Love Theme Icon
Men and Women Theme Icon
Hermia wishes her father could look at Lysander through her eyes, but Theseus responds, "Rather your eyes must with his [your father's] judgment look" (1.1.59). (full context)
Love Theme Icon
The Supernatural Theme Icon
Hermia asks what will happen if she refuses to marry Demetrius. Theseus gives the following choices: become a nun, be put to death, or marry Demetrius. When... (full context)
Men and Women Theme Icon
Theseus admits he's disturbed by these facts, but says he cannot change the laws of Athens.... (full context)
Act 1, scene 2
Plays Within Plays Theme Icon
...are meeting about the play they hope to perform as part of the celebration for Theseus and Hippolyta's wedding: The most lamentable comedy and most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisbe. (full context)
Act 4, scene 1
Love Theme Icon
Plays Within Plays Theme Icon
Men and Women Theme Icon
The Supernatural Theme Icon
...Oberon dance together, and Oberon pronounces that on the next night they will dance at Theseus's castle in honor of Duke Theseus's wedding and the weddings of Lysander and Hermia and... (full context)
Love Theme Icon
Dreams Theme Icon
The Supernatural Theme Icon
Theseus, Hippolyta, Egeus, and many others enter, about to hunt. But they recognize the sleeping lovers... (full context)
Act 5, scene 1
Dreams Theme Icon
The Supernatural Theme Icon
At the palace, Theseus and Hippolyta discuss the tale the lovers have told about their night in the wood.... (full context)
Plays Within Plays Theme Icon
The lovers enter, and Theseus asks them what entertainment they'd like to see that night. Philostrate brings forward a list... (full context)
Plays Within Plays Theme Icon
When Theseus learns that the players are simple manual laborers trying to do more than they are... (full context)
Plays Within Plays Theme Icon
Dreams Theme Icon
...actors don't even exist: "All for your delight we are not here" (5.1.114). Though as Theseus, Hippolyta, and the lovers remark, the prologue would have been normal if it had been... (full context)
Love Theme Icon
Men and Women Theme Icon
...lovers will speak though a hole in the wall that he represents with his fingers. Theseus and Demetrius comment that the Wall is the wittiest wall they've ever heard speak. (full context)
Plays Within Plays Theme Icon
Bottom enters as Pyramus, and curses the Wall for dividing him from his love. Theseus comments that since the Wall can talk it should curse him back. Bottom, overhearing, turns... (full context)
Love Theme Icon
Plays Within Plays Theme Icon
...tomb) to elope. Hippolyta states, "This is the silliest stuff that ever I heard" (5.1.222). Theseus responds, "If we imagine no worse of them than they of themselves, they may pass... (full context)
Plays Within Plays Theme Icon
...that the lantern he holds is moonshine, while he is the man in the moon. Theseus and the others make fun of the speeches. (full context)
Plays Within Plays Theme Icon
Dreams Theme Icon
...to the stage. She sees Pyramus lying dead. In despair she stabs herself, and dies. Theseus and the lovers continue to make fun of the play all the while. Finally, Bottom... (full context)
The Supernatural Theme Icon
Theseus says that it is almost "fairy time" (midnight), and therefore time to go to bed.... (full context)