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What All but He Do Know: Midsummer Night’s Dream Revisited

February 1st, 2007 | 2 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

The handsome, extraordinarily brilliant, and always punchy Nobody (who has been happily blogging at Any Eventuality for some time now) sent in this juicy piece of poetry from Shakespeare’s Sonnet number 129.  (I should also point out that Nobody is almost a month late for his top movies of 2006, but I digress.)

All this the world well knows yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.

The line reminds, of course, of Midsummer Night’s Dream (of which there was no little discussion here in December), when Helena laments Demetrius’ abdication of her love:  “He will not know what all but he do know.”  Later, as she pursues Demetrius in the forest, she says, “I’ll follow thee, and make a heaven of hell, to die upon the hand I loved so well.”

If the Sonnet can be admitted as extra-textual evidence for an interpretation of the play, then it does question the notion that the issue in Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of “reason vs. madness.” The whole Sonnet reads:

The expense of spirit in a waste of shame

Is lust in action; and till action, lust

Is perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame,

Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust,

Enjoy’d no sooner but despised straight,

Past reason hunted, and no sooner had

Past reason hated, as a swallow’d bait

On purpose laid to make the taker mad;

Mad in pursuit and in possession so;

Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;

A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe;

Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.

All this the world well knows; yet none knows well

To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.

The notion that “past reason” hunts this object that it then hates suggests that the problem of lust is not unreason, as “past reason” hunts this object.  I was initially going to suggest that the problem is faulty reasoning, but I am now inclined to think that Shakespeare is silent on the cause of lust.  Just as it is not clear exactly why Demetrius leaves Helena for Hermia, here too it is not clear why past reason hunts the object of desire so ferociously, or why it is so dissatisfied upon the attinemnt of that desire.  It seems here we must again raise the questions, and be content without answers. 

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.