There are so many references to "the eyes" in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" that one would expect there to be a solid and consistent reason for their appearance. However, this does not seem to be the case. Indeed, the images associated with the eyes are so varied, and shift so frequently, that it is practically impossible to define what it is they represent. This difficulty reflects the problem of distinguishing between what is real and what is illusion -- a central theme of the play.
Confusion and misunderstanding abound throughout "A Midsummer Night's Dream." The lovers' chase through the forest is perhaps the most obvious example. The "mechanicks'" bumbling performance of "Pyramus and Thisbe" is perhaps the most comic. However, as the play commences, it is a misunderstanding between Egeus and Hermia that threatens to throw the court into turmoil.
This particular misunderstanding revolves around Hermia's love for Lysander. Although Egeus has arranged for his daughter to wed Demetrius, it is Lysander that Hermia really wants to marry. However, Egeus refuses to ascent to their marriage, threatening to enforce on his daughter the "ancient privilege of Athens" (1.1.41) if she does not condescend to his original choice. Even though this would entail her entering a nunnery (or perhaps even being executed), Egeus' opinion cannot be swayed. His stubbornness leads Hermia to exclaim: "I would my father looked but with mine eyes" (1.1.56).
Clearly, Hermia believes that if her father could see Lysander in the same light as her, then he would quickly form a different opinion of him. In this instance, then, the eyes symbolize judgment. Theseus' response to Hermia not only ...
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...e, nor his heart to report what my dream was" (4.1.204-207). Here, he confuses the senses in his attempt to get a grip on reality, thus demonstrating the blurred boundary between reality and illusion.
Clearly, then, the eye alone cannot be trusted to provide adequate information about the nature of reality. The fluid, endlessly shifting imagery of the eyes serves to represent this problem, adding to the dreamlike quality of the play in the process. Possibly, it is left to the "poet's eye" (5.1.12) to make the distinction between reality and illusion: "The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen/Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing/A local habitation and a name" (5.1.15-17).
Shakespeare, William. "A Midsummer Night's Dream." The Norton Shakespeare. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1997. 814-861.
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