A Midsummer Night's Dream

by

William Shakespeare

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A Midsummer Night's Dream: Allusions 2 key examples

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Definition of Allusion
In literature, an allusion is an unexplained reference to someone or something outside of the text. Writers commonly allude to other literary works, famous individuals, historical events, or philosophical ideas... read full definition
In literature, an allusion is an unexplained reference to someone or something outside of the text. Writers commonly allude to other literary works, famous individuals... read full definition
In literature, an allusion is an unexplained reference to someone or something outside of the text. Writers commonly allude to... read full definition
Act 1, scene 1
Explanation and Analysis—The Carthage Queen:

In Act 1, Scene 1, Hermia makes an allusion to the story of Dido and Aeneas from Virgil's epic, The Aeneid. Hermia's love for Lysander is forbidden by her father and by the Duke of Athens, but she believes that this test of their relationship will only prove its strength. They agree to meet the next day and flee the city together. As she prepares to part from him, she says: 

I swear to thee by Cupid’s strongest bow, 
By his best arrow with the golden head, 
By the simplicity of Venus’ doves, 
By that which knitteth souls and prospers loves, 
And by that fire which burned the Carthage queen 
When the false Trojan under sail was seen, [...]

She uses a series of vows to promise that she will meet Lysander the next day and that they will run away together. Her aim in this speech is to reassure him of her devotion, and she does so using this series of examples. Before her allusion to Dido ("the Carthage queen"), she references Cupid—whose arrow strikes the hearts of lovers—and the Roman goddess of love, Venus. The section of her vow that concerns Dido and Aeneas references the moment that Dido realizes Aeneas has secretly sailed away from her.

When Dido sees his ship leaving her harbor, she cannot bear his betrayal and burns herself so as not to live apart from him. The severity of her decision and the pain of her love strengthens the vow that Hermia makes to Lysander. Her allusion to their tragic love story clarifies the extent to which she will go for Lysander, even abandoning her father and her life in Athens so that they may be together. She references Dido’s dedication to love in order to assure Lysander that she too will be true. 

Act 3, scene 2
Explanation and Analysis—Venus:

In Act 3, Scene 2, Hermia and Demetrius discover each other in the forest, and Demetrius communicates the depth of his feeling for her by making an allusion to the goddess and planet of love, Venus. Hermia is distressed because Lysander has left her in the woods, disrupting her confidence in the strength of their devotion to each other. She accuses Demetrius of killing Lysander, as she believes that nothing but death could draw him from her side. Her accusation wounds Demetrius, who has done no such thing. He says: 

So should the murdered look, and so should I, 
Pierced through the heart with your stern cruelty. 
Yet you, the murderer, look as bright, as clear 
As yonder Venus in her glimmering sphere.

Demetrius compares Hermia to the planet Venus in order to describe the extent of his devotion to her. He says that even when she wounds him by presuming that he has committed an act of murder—making her a "murderer" of his heart—he can see no fault in her. His comparison to the planet Venus is significant because Venus (the planet) is associated with the goddess of love (who goes by the same name). His adoration for her makes her infallible in his eyes—like a planet, she is untouchable, and like the goddess Venus, she represents love and beauty. In this scene, Demetrius believes that Lysander’s absence has given him an opportunity to prove himself to Hermia, and though he fails, the extent of his efforts is characterized by the language he uses to woo her. In this instance, he invokes the planetary and all-powerful deity to insist that she could do nothing to make him see her in a bad light.

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