Graphing the relationships in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Left page: Puck dripping nectar from a love-in-idleness blossom onto the eyelids of a sleeping Fairy Queen. Right: Some of our students' graphs of the relationships between the human characters in Shakespeare's 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'.

Last week, we read the first half of a sumptuously-illustrated children’s adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s great comedies, A Midsummer Night’s Dream (the version with text by Adam McKeown and featuring art created by Antonio Javier Caparo), with some of our students.

A major element of the plot is the use of nectar from blossoms of the wild pansy aka Viola tricolor) to further complicate the already snarled romantic relationships between the characters in the play. Here’s how it works: after drops from one of these flowers falls onto someone’s sleeping eyes, that person will immediately fall deeply in love with the first person whom they encounter after waking.

Oberon, the fairy king, is quarreling with his wife, Titania, and he decides to try to get the upper hand in their dispute by having his servant, a sprite named Puck, use the juice from one of these flowers to cause the queen of the fairies to begin to adore one of the wild beasts that roam the forest, outside Athens, where much of the drama takes place. The image at the top of this post shows, at left, Puck administering love-in-idleness nectar to the eyes of a sleeping Titania. Almost as an afterthought, Oberon also tells Puck to use a second flower to resolve the romantic problems of four young mortals.

Some of our students' graphs of the romantic relationships between the mortal characters in Shakespeare's 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' before Puck, at the behest of Oberon, begins interfering.

Two Athenian youths, Hermia and Lysander, are deeply in love. Unfortunately, Hermia’s father promised his daughter’s hand in marriage to another young man, named Demetrius. Demetrius knows of Hermia’s love for Lysander but is nevertheless intent on making her his bride. At the same time, Demetrius is himself on the receiving end of unwanted amorous advances, from a friend of Hermia’s named Helena.

When Hermia sneaks out of the city to escape from her arranged marriage and join her one true love outside Athens, Helena rats her out in hopes of currying favor with Demetrius. While she may have tipped Demetrius off to Hermia’s flight, however, Helena has no desire to see Demetrius catch Hermia and drag her back to town for a forced wedding. On the contrary, Helena hopes that Hermia will get away and that Demetrius will have no alternative but to settle for her at last.

A double chase ensues, with Demetrius pursuing Hermia through the woods and Helena dogging Demetrius. Oberon, having overheard an exchange between Helena and Demetrius, gives Puck the task of dosing Demetrius with nectar from a love-in-idleness blossom and causing him to reciprocate Helena’s love.

The image above features the pre-nectar relationship graphs produced by four of our students for Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Though Tiffany made a minor error in her graph, she was the first to respond correctly when we asked her and her classmates to point out the error that Caparo, the book’s illustrator, made when depicting the love-in-idleness flower.

As Tiffany explained (and as is set forth in McKeown’s version of the story), the wild pansy is predominately white and purple, but Caparo has given us a solid red flower!

Good job, Tiffany! Good work, everybody!