A Midsummer Night's Dream

by

William Shakespeare

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A Midsummer Night's Dream: Foil 3 key examples

Read our modern English translation.
Act 1, scene 1
Explanation and Analysis—The Couples:

Two of the central couples in the play—Hippolyta and Theseus, on the one hand, and Titania and Oberon, on the other—serve as foils to each other. The most immediate similarity between these four is that they're all in positions of leadership; Oberon and Titania are king and queen of the Fairies, and Theseus is the Duke of Athens and has taken the Amazonian Queen, Hippolyta, as his soon-to-be wife. Therefore, as characters move between the Fairie kingdoms of the forest and the court of Athens, they tread the boundaries between these two territories. The relationship between their leaders grows more complicated as the audience learns of the previous relationships between the four powerful figures. In Act 2, Scene 1, Oberon and Titania begin to argue, and Titania mentions Hippolyta, revealing that Hippolyta and Oberon were previously lovers. Oberon responds: 

How canst thou thus for shame, Titania 
Knowing I know thy love to Theseus? 
Glance at my credit with Hippolyta, 

These couples, it emerges, are foils for one another because they have already been romantically entangled. Oberon used to be Hippolyta’s lover, but she has now been captured by Theseus, who even admits the violent nature of his conquest of her. At the very beginning of the play, he says: 

Hippolyta, I wooed thee with my sword 
And won thy love doing thee injuries

Theseus’s decision to take Hippolyta from her own kingdom and have her as his wife also ends her relationship with Oberon. The tension between the leaders of the two worlds of the play—and, by extension, of the worlds themselves—is created by the power dynamics at play in these relationships. The contrasting couples in leadership frame the play’s conflicts and serve to highlight the faults and strengths of each pair of lovers.

Explanation and Analysis—Helena and Hermia:

Helena and Hermia serve as foils for each other because they are always in competition for romantic affection. The conflict that is created by their relationships with Demetrius and Lysander is complicated by continuous unrequited love and rejection. Hermia and Helena are also best friends, and their lives are entangled even before they enter the forest. At the start of the play, both of the men love Hermia, and Helena’s devotion to Demetrius makes her want to be just like her friend. In Act 1, Scene 1, Helena says: 

Were the world mine, Demetrius being bated, 
The rest I’d give to be to you translated. 
O’ teach me how you look and with what art 
You sway the motion of Demetrius’ heart! 

In this scene, Helena expresses her longing to be more like Helena because she believes that by embodying her friend she might finally catch Demetrius’s attention. Hermia responds with pity, since she has no love for Demetrius. Once the four lovers enter the forest, however, the clarity of their relationships begins to waver. With help from Robin, both men are transformed and both come to love Helena instead of Hermia. This prompts jealousy and hatred in Hermia and Helena's friendship. Hermia feels betrayed, and the women fight each other.

The extremity of their emotions in the forest exacerbate the sense that Hermia and Helena share similarities beyond their friendship. They contrast each other, and even though their respective relationships survive the forest, the parallels between them are clear.

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Act 2, scene 1
Explanation and Analysis—The Couples:

Two of the central couples in the play—Hippolyta and Theseus, on the one hand, and Titania and Oberon, on the other—serve as foils to each other. The most immediate similarity between these four is that they're all in positions of leadership; Oberon and Titania are king and queen of the Fairies, and Theseus is the Duke of Athens and has taken the Amazonian Queen, Hippolyta, as his soon-to-be wife. Therefore, as characters move between the Fairie kingdoms of the forest and the court of Athens, they tread the boundaries between these two territories. The relationship between their leaders grows more complicated as the audience learns of the previous relationships between the four powerful figures. In Act 2, Scene 1, Oberon and Titania begin to argue, and Titania mentions Hippolyta, revealing that Hippolyta and Oberon were previously lovers. Oberon responds: 

How canst thou thus for shame, Titania 
Knowing I know thy love to Theseus? 
Glance at my credit with Hippolyta, 

These couples, it emerges, are foils for one another because they have already been romantically entangled. Oberon used to be Hippolyta’s lover, but she has now been captured by Theseus, who even admits the violent nature of his conquest of her. At the very beginning of the play, he says: 

Hippolyta, I wooed thee with my sword 
And won thy love doing thee injuries

Theseus’s decision to take Hippolyta from her own kingdom and have her as his wife also ends her relationship with Oberon. The tension between the leaders of the two worlds of the play—and, by extension, of the worlds themselves—is created by the power dynamics at play in these relationships. The contrasting couples in leadership frame the play’s conflicts and serve to highlight the faults and strengths of each pair of lovers.

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Act 5, scene 1
Explanation and Analysis:

After the triple wedding and the resolution of the lovers’ discontents, the court of Athens assembles to watch the tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe. The performance of Bottom's relationship to the rest of the players is generally played to humorous effect and therefore becomes a foil for some of the real relationships in the play.

The plot of the forbidden lovers especially mirrors the initial relationship between Hermia and Lysander. Bottom and Flute play lovers forbidden to see each other by their parents. They must instead interact through a crack in a wall, physically separated and longing for each other. The source of their conflict is reminiscent of the play’s first scene, when Egeus orders Hermia to marry Demetrius or die. Flute, as Thisbe, bemoans her circumstances, saying: 

O wall, full often hast thou heard my moans 
For parting my fair Pyramus and me. 
My cherry lips have often kissed thy stones 

The story of Pyramus and Thisbe makes fun of the agony of lovers who are apart and therefore references the earlier plight of Hermia and Lysander. Now that their situation is resolved and they are happily—recently—married, the players can mock their earlier agony. Because they are players putting on a performance, they have greater liberty to engage with situations that are so directly relevant to the newlyweds. The tragedy creates a parallel relationship between the two couples, thus allowing both the lovers and the audience to reflect on the events of the play right before it ends. This moment of reflection is created by the situational similarities between Pyramus and Thisbe and the lovers watching the play. When Pyramus and Thisbe meet a tragic end, it only serves to highlight the joy of the wedding and the happiness of the recently married couples. 

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